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N.J. files progress reports on marijuana dispensaries

TRENTON The New Jersey Department of Health has issued its first progress report on the state's medical marijuana program in response to a court order given after two patients filed a lawsuit alleging the agency had deliberately delayed the program's implementation.

TRENTON The New Jersey Department of Health has issued its first progress report on the state's medical marijuana program in response to a court order given after two patients filed a lawsuit alleging the agency had deliberately delayed the program's implementation.

In January, an appeals panel dismissed the complaint, which sought more oversight and damages, and was filed by a Medford man who suffers from Crohn's disease and by the estate of a Toms River woman who died while she was on the patients' waiting list. But the court found that the Health Department had failed to file annual reports as required by the four-year-old statute.

A 10-page "annual report" and a 10-page "biennial report" were simultaneously filed with legislators and the governor Friday. The reports conclude that the $469 average price per ounce is not excessive and that the state's three dispensaries are adequate to serve the 1,755 patients who have registered.

Richard Caporusso, a former state corrections officer from Medford, could not be reached for comment. Anne M. Davis, his lawyer, said that Caporusso was moving to Colorado, where medical marijuana is more accessible and where recreational marijuana was recently legalized. In recent months, he had complained about the pace of the New Jersey program and the costs of obtaining medical marijuana.

"I'm happy the court recognized DOH has not been following what they have been mandated to do," Davis said, noting that the agency's failure to file the reports had prevented patients from petitioning the state to add to the dozen qualifying ailments listed in the statute. The petitions can be filed only after the reports are issued.

Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd has said that the agency had been tasked with writing regulations and creating a program. More recently, she said that the program had made "significant progress" and that it now has three dispensaries open statewide, in different geographic regions.

Three years ago, the agency approved six nonprofits to operate dispensaries. At least one other dispensary is expected to open this year - Breakwater ATC in Middlesex County - while the other two are still in the preliminary stages, the reports said.

Andrei Bogolubov, a spokesman for the Compassionate Sciences Foundation, said last year that the nonprofit was expecting to open this summer in Bellmawr, Camden County. That prospect now seems unlikely.

Background checks of the nonprofit's finances, boards, and business model have been continuing for more than 14 months. The agency's reports said that these checks have taken between four and 15 months, and are then followed by an average period of more than six months before the dispensaries are able to open.

The "permitting process is modeled after protocols and procedures for reviewing the background and finances of casino operators," according to the Health Department.

Bogolubov did not return calls for comment. Compassionate Sciences has begun building a dispensary in a former T-shirt printing plant in an industrial park.

The reports also provide a snapshot of how the program is operating. So far, 250 doctors have registered with the program, and more than 4,000 plants were harvested, producing more than 70 pounds of marijuana. The reports conclude that 78 percent of the registered patients have been served and that there is no need to increase the number of dispensaries beyond the six allowed.

But Ken Wolski, with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, says the report misses the point because "all of the patients who could benefit from medical marijuana cannot partake in this program," because there are so few doctors and because New Jersey's program is the most expensive in the country. Patients must pay hundreds of dollars in cash to visit doctors and get a prescription, then pay a $200 registration fee, more than $400 for an ounce of the drug, and then taxes, he said.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), an author of the medical marijuana law, said he planned to meet with health officials to see if they can reduce the fee and do more to encourage more doctors to register. He also said more dispensaries are needed so that patients do not have to travel so far. Currently, the dispensaries are in Montclair, near New York; Egg Harbor Township, near Atlantic City; and Woodbridge, in Central New Jersey.

"There's room for improving the program," he said.

Gusciora said the agency should consider replacing the nonprofits that have not yet opened a dispensary three years after they were granted preliminary approvals. "In some states, after you get a license, you have a certain number of days to open," he said, adding that there may be an 18-month limit. "I think we should be looking at doing that."

The reports also concluded that the $469-per-ounce price is not excessive because it is within 1 percent of the price in states with comparable medical marijuana programs and with comparable costs of living. The price is also "within 5 and 16 percent of New Jersey black market marijuana," according to the reports, which based their analysis on 2010 law enforcement statistics.