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Westampton marijuana center problems indicative of state's issues

William J. Thomas thought he had found the perfect spot for a 10,000-plant indoor marijuana farm when he toured a former LED light factory in Westampton a few months ago.

William J. Thomas thought he had found the perfect spot for a 10,000-plant indoor marijuana farm when he toured a former LED light factory in Westampton a few months ago.

The 50,000-square-foot facility, which sits in an industrial zone next to Burlington County's recycling plant and Occupational Training Center, needs minimal renovation. Town officials initially saw no barriers, so he envisioned the facility becoming one of New Jersey's first legalized marijuana growing and dispensing operations.

Now, he's not so sure.

After initial reluctance by Gov. Christie to implement the law passed in early 2010 under his predecessor, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the state Department of Health and Senior Services this month established regulations and set up a permitting process. But communities around the state, including Maple Shade and Bellmawr, have been reluctant to host the novel businesses.

"Everybody is afraid of something new," Thomas said. "There's a lot of misunderstanding."

Though the federal government still sees such businesses as illegal, New Jersey joined 13 other states in passing laws to permit marijuana production and sales for medicinal use. Pennsylvania is not among them.

The Obama administration has said it won't spend resources prosecuting such dispensary operators unless it finds unauthorized users.

In August, the Health and Senior Services Department gave preliminary approvals to six nonprofits - including Thomas' Trenton-based Compassionate Care Foundation - to grow and dispense marijuana.

But so far, none has gotten all the approvals needed to begin production.

When asked his opinion of Thomas' proposal, a resident in the Fernbrooke senior citizen housing development said: "I hope it doesn't go the way of California." He would not give his name. The 91-home cluster is across the street and about 1,000 yards from the proposed dispensary.

In California and Colorado, the federal government has raided some of the dispensaries in recent months after reports that marijuana was being distributed to people with no verifiable medical condition. There were also reports of legalized marijuana being smuggled across state lines.

Only people with terminal illness, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions specified in the law are eligible to receive limited quantities of the drug.

Legislators expected New Jersey's program to begin operations in 2010, but Christie sought assurances that federal agents would not prosecute.

He never got express assurances, but under pressure from the bill's sponsors and advocates for the sick, he agreed to proceed with the program as long as the dispensaries are carefully regulated.

Patients cannot obtain the drug without a prescription from an approved doctor and a state-issued photo ID. The dispensary operators and employees also have to undergo background checks and be fingerprinted.

Earlier this month, John H. O'Brien Jr., a retired state police lieutenant, was named program director. His job will be to make sure the operators are in compliance.

So far, only one nonprofit has received local approvals to open. Montclair officials in Essex County recently signed off on a proposal submitted by the Greenleaf Compassion Center, said Donna Leusner, health department spokeswoman.

When Thomas began looking, he found a warehouse in Bellmawr that had potential. But when the mayor expressed surprise at his plans, the landlord backed out and Thomas had to resume his search.

In Westampton, he was encouraged when town officials told him he would not need special permission to grow marijuana. The former factory on Hancock Lane is zoned for light industrial, agricultural, retail, warehouse, medical clinic, and hotel uses.

But after residents packed a town meeting in October and raised concerns about increased crime, Thomas was told he had to obtain a use variance.

Compassionate Sciences Inc., a Sea Cliff, N.Y., company that wanted to open a dispensary in a vacant furniture store in Maple Shade, had a similar experience in October.

The area was zoned for business use, and the nonprofit was assured that the zoning board would easily approve its plan. But when its representatives went before the zoning board, they were met by an angry crowd. The plan was defeated.

Residents there said they feared the dispensary would give the town an unsavory reputation and become a marijuana mecca.

Compassionate Sciences is looking for a new location. "We're not just going to barge in somewhere where we're not wanted," said spokesman Andrei Bogolubov.

"I feel there are some communities that would welcome us," he said, citing a Rutgers-Eagleton poll conducted last month. The telephone survey of 753 randomly selected New Jersey registered voters found six of every seven voters favor allowing marijuana for medicinal purposes. "After it's up and running in the state, people will wonder what all the fuss was about."

Westampton town administrator Donna Ryan said that the mayor, town planner, and zoning officer all thought Thomas' plans would be an acceptable use when he "came to us informally."

But after Thomas submitted plans, the town's Land Development Board attorney, Michael Coluzzi, said a use variance was needed.

Coluzzi said in an interview that a marijuana operation was not anticipated when the law was adopted in 1998 and that the board must interpret what "the governing body's intent" was at the time.

Thomas, a retired health-care management researcher, said he planned to meet with the residents to share the security measures he planned to take at the facility. He is proposing 24-hour video surveillance, guards, and a secured reception area limited to patients with valid identification.

He also is offering $10 million in financial incentives to the township, including bringing in 75 jobs and making payments to hire more police officers.

"California let the genie out of the bottle too fast," Thomas complained. He hopes that once people learn about the program and the stringent regulations, the New Jersey marijuana operations will win public support.

"The bottom line is, it's a new program and people don't know what it's going to attract," Thomas said. "The people who would visit us are the same people who would to Virtua Hospital or to CVS. They're not drug addicts, and this is not a pot shop. We're trying to help sick people."