EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J - There are no signs out front, but people still show up at a drab beige warehouse outside Atlantic City to ask whether medical marijuana is available.
Inside the cavernous building, 1,500 plants are growing beneath glowing fuchsia, yellow, and white LED lights inside a makeshift room. Soon, the sweet-smelling, leafy plants will be harvested. They now stand 18 inches tall, each in a three-gallon pot, after three months of nurturing.
Growers in white lab coats fussed over them last week, culling out unwanted half-male half-female specimens while three New Jersey health inspectors watched.
In about two weeks, the cannabis will be gathered, dried and packaged, said William Thomas, Compassionate Care Foundation's hands-on CEO. The bar-code number on each seed will be checked again when the final product is placed in a vial. Then, on Oct. 15, CCF hopes to open, becoming South Jersey's first dispensary.
But don't envision patients lining up at the clinic's entrance at the front of the warehouse, in an industrial park in this suburban community, nine miles from the ocean. No walk-ins are allowed.
Since medical marijuana was legalized in New Jersey nearly four years ago, a dizzying array of regulations have been drafted by the state health department to restrict access to registered patients who have one of a dozen debilitating conditions. A licensed physician must grant approval, and patients may buy only two ounces per month.
Illuminated signs, logos, and ads are prohibited so as not to attract loiterers and the ineligible, including out-of-staters.
Tat has not prevented the curious from stopping by. The marijuana business is new to the area. While 21 states allow it, Pennsylvania does not. CCF's website, www.ccfnj.org, lists its address: 100 Century Drive.
Thomas, who worked as a health-insurance industry executive for 40 years, says sales will be by appointment only. To gain entry, an anticipated 40 patients a day will have to show a guard a state-issued photo ID card. Surveillance cameras increase security.
"Most of our patients are very sick. The marijuana is medicine," he said.
A friendly face
Once inside, patients will be greeted by registered nurses who discuss ways to smoke or vaporize the cannabis buds. The cost: $400 an ounce. It's not covered by insurance, so patients must make financial arrangements. CCF will help indigents.
Patients also might expect a wet nudge from Jake, Thomas' friendly 6-year-old yellow Lab, who was trained as a therapy dog to calm anxious patients. "You can't help but be happy when you see him," Thomas says, as Jake throws a ball to him.
CCF will be the state's second dispensary, after Greenleaf Compassion Center, which opened in December in Montclair.
But CCF will be markedly different. Greenleaf's operators struggled to meet the demand and ended up serving only 130 patients, leaving 1,000 others on a wait list. Those who paid $200 to register last year have bitterly complained.
CCF plans a much larger operation. Upon opening, it will have enough cannabis for 1,500 patients.
CCF's opening "will give patients more options to choose from in terms of geographic locations and the number of available strains," Donna Leusner, a health department spokeswoman said. Final state approvals are pending.
Four other nonprofits hope to open dispensaries in the state over the next year, including one in Bellmawr, Camden County.
CCF also has aggressive expansion plans. The state Economic Development Authority recently approved a $350,000 loan for CCF to triple production, possibly as soon as next spring.
Assuming the patient registry blossoms, and the rules are relaxed to allow deliveries to hospice centers and nursing centers, Thomas said, CCF envisions that one day it could use its entire 85,000-square-foot warehouse and serve 40,000 patients a month. He estimates a half-million New Jersey patients with terminal illness, cancer, and other serious ailments may be eligible to use cannabis.
Next year, CCF projects a gross income of $8 million, but the money can only be used to pay off its $2.5 million start-up costs, its operating expenses, taxes, and salaries because CCF is a nonprofit, he said. "We're not owners of a business," he said.
CCF will also owe about $2 million in federal income taxes because the federal government still views marijuana as illegal and does not recognize CCF's nonprofit status.
Due to this financial reality, CCF must charge $400 per ounce, he said. CCF hopes to lower the price as more patients enroll.
"This is the hardest thing I have ever done," Thomas said. "We are a mainstream business. We are like a pharmaceutical company."
Initially, CCF will sell three strains: CCF-CDB1, CCF-Mid1, and CCF-High1, based on potency. The first treats epilepsy and neurological illnesses, while the second is for moderate pain, nausea, and appetite stimulation, and the third is for extreme pain and nausea.
Thomas said CCF hopes to produce more strains next year and do research on patient results.
Also in CCF's sights is a lab that would manufacture edibles by extracting oil from the leaves, Thomas said. Last month, the state ban on edibles was lifted after the parents of a 2-year-old North Jersey girl with severe epilepsy fought for the change in the law so the child can use cannabis.
Roseanne Scotti, director of the advocacy group New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, says patients look forward to finally being able to purchase cannabis after a long wait. "We're thrilled Egg Harbor will open soon," she said.
Scotti is also happy CCF will dedicate its dispensary to Diane Riportella, an Egg Harbor Township woman who pushed for medical marijuana for five years, testifying before lawmakers from a wheelchair when she was very sick with ALS. She died last year, four months shy of the opening of the first dispensary.
"She was a superstar," Scotti said. A plaque will be hung in her memory in a reception area that will resemble a doctor's waiting room.