Two more medical marijuana dispensaries may open soon in New Jersey, bringing the total to three, state Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd said Thursday in response to a legislator's questions about the progress of the three-year-old program.
Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D., Gloucester) asked whether the program's budget should be cut, noting that only one of the six dispensaries that were preliminarily approved had opened.
"If these things are dragging, should this money sit?" he asked during a state budget hearing.
"We're working to fully implement this program," O'Dowd said, explaining that the department had to build infrastructure to set up a patient and physician registry.
The first dispensary opened in Montclair, Essex County, in December, but is limiting its clientele to North Jersey residents. A second dispensary operator is renovating a former warehouse in Egg Harbor, Atlantic County, and plans an opening in September.
On Thursday, O'Dowd disclosed that a third dispensary owner cleared its background checks last month and is "in the process of building out its physical space." She said inspectors regularly visit that facility in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, to streamline the approval process so the dispensary can open as soon as possible.
"The department has been working with the ATC [alternative treatment center] to pre-inspect as a way to streamline the process so that once the ATC has completed the build-out of its facility, the department will inspect it, and if it passes inspection, issue a permit to grow," said Donna Leusner, Health Department spokesperson.
The Compassionate Care Center of America Foundation also may open its dispensary in September, she said.
David Weisser, president of the foundation, could not be reached for comment.
Two years ago, the department selected six nonprofits to operate dispensaries - two in each section of the state. O'Dowd said the other three dispensary operators were in "various stages and have not announced their locations."
Burzichelli pressed O'Dowd for when the others would open, but she said that depended on how quickly the dispensaries can obtain municipal approvals and how long it will take for the foundations to get their facilities ready. She also said that the background checks take "a significant amount of time," but that they are necessary to make sure only responsible individuals are involved in the program.
Burzichelli said that he wanted the department to get all six dispensaries open so that more patients would be able to get alternative pain relief when traditional drugs fail.
About 900 qualified patients have registered with the marijuana program, but many are on a waiting list. O'Dowd said the opening of more dispensaries would improve access to the drug.