The scramble to open new medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers across New Jersey has begun.
Gov. Murphy issued an order allowing a wide range of ailments to be treated with cannabis two months ago and the state's five licensed dispensaries are now flooded with thousands of new patients.
Compassionate Care Foundation (CCF), a South Jersey dispensary that previously struggled to attract patients, now has ambitious plans to open two satellite dispensaries and expand cultivation by adding a 135,000-square-foot greenhouse that once nurtured a sea of orchids.
The satellite stores, which it hopes to open in Moorestown and Cherry Hill, would be the cannabis industry's first foray into populous and affluent communities in South Jersey. The greenhouse is in more rural Gloucester County.
CCF's application for state approval, which the Inquirer obtained through an open public records request, projects that the new stores would boost its clientele six-fold to 15,000 patients within six months of opening. "CCF's current location in Atlantic County is too remote for our current patient base," the application said.
CCF's dispensary and grow site, which opened in 2013, is tucked inside a former Trump casino warehouse in an Egg Harbor Township industrial park a dozen miles outside of Atlantic City. Curaleaf, South Jersey's only other dispensary, is in an industrial park too, in tiny Bellmawr Borough. Last month, Curaleaf relocated its dispensary to a larger building across the street to accommodate the spike in patients and to free up space to expand its cultivation center.
Both CCF and Curaleaf were forced to open in those spaces years ago after encountering resistance from the towns that had been their first and second choices. Town officials and zoning boards had bowed to residents who said that they feared that a dispensary would bring "stoners" into their community, increase crime, and send mixed messages to teens.
David Knowlton, a founder and president of CCF, said public opinion on marijuana has shifted dramatically as an increasing number of people report that cannabis has helped with their ailments. Polls show a majority of Americans now favor both medical and recreational cannabis, and New Jersey lawmakers are considering legalizing marijuana outright.
"I came into this thinking there was some promise in medicinal marijuana. I had no idea it would expand so rapidly," said Knowlton, who previously ran a nonprofit that assessed health care delivery. "At our facility, patients come in who are no longer on opioids because of this, and kids with epilepsy use it and it's the treatment of choice."
Knowlton said he does not anticipate that CCF will face the same fight when it seeks approval to open the satellite shops.
Filed in April, two weeks after the governor relaxed the marijuana program rules, CCF's application initially proposed two satellite shops in Cherry Hill and a third in Atlantic City.
Knowlton said CCF's plans recently changed and it now wants to open only two satellite shops, in Cherry Hill and Moorestown. Atlantic City has been dropped from consideration for business reasons, he said.
The tourist town is on the verge of a revival and Atlantic City officials have said they would welcome a marijuana dispensary. But their counterparts in several other Shore towns have said they would not allow such a business.
Last month, CCF announced plans to partner with Acreage Holdings, a cannabis company that manages dispensaries in 11 other states, including Pennsylvania. Former House Speaker John Boehner and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld recently joined the New York-based company's board of advisers.
Knowlton said Acreage Holdings will help CCF expand. He could not provide the exact location for the proposed satellite shops but said the Cherry Hill dispensary would be in the town's "medical valley," an area with numerous medical offices, health facilities and hospitals, while the Moorestown dispensary would be "off Route 295," a well-traveled expressway.
CFF wants to get state approval before meeting with town officials.
Moorestown Mayor Stacy Jordan said she was unaware CCF was eyeing her town, which a few years ago was divided over whether to allow liquor sales. Residents eventually voted in favor of allowing alcohol to be sold, but only in restaurants near the mall.
"Seriously, we went through such a tough time getting alcohol, I don't know how it will go with marijuana. On the surface, it sounds good because it definitely helps some people with rare and serious diseases. But you have to worry about it becoming openly recreational," said Jordan, a Republican.
While Gov. Murphy has signaled that he would support adult recreational marijuana, lawmakers are still debating it. Some legislators have said that if it is approved, the medical marijuana dispensaries may be allowed to sell to recreational users along with patients.
Through a spokesman, Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn, a Democrat, declined comment on CCF's proposal, saying: "I don't know that we have enough information."
In Mantua Township, where CCF wants to open a cannabis cultivation center, Mayor Pete Scirotto said he has little reservation about the idea. "It doesn't much matter whether they're growing orchids in there or marijuana," he said. "What adults do behind closed doors, or what adults need for anxiety or backaches, it's not a bad thing. … There will be a lot of security and it's not like if they throw stuff away someone can go dumpster diving for marijuana."
The greenhouse is in Sewell, a rural part of the town, and was previously operated by Matsui Nursery Inc. It's adjacent to Delaware Valley Floral, a company that processes cut flowers and distributes them across the country.
In the past, CCF has had difficulties competing for patients and producing a sufficient supply of cannabis. It recently restricted the sale of its popular strains so there would be enough to go around.
But if CCF's expansion plans win approval, the new cultivation center and its current 80,000 square-foot warehouse space could give CCF bragging rights to say it operates the nation's largest medical marijuana grow site, Knowlton said.
CCF is also getting a slick makeover, as seen by a video Acreage Holding posted on CCF's Facebook page. The 33-second presentation features aerial shots of the Jersey Shore and what appears to be the Atlantic City Boardwalk, juxtaposed against geometric patterns of the vented metal roofs at the Sewell greenhouse.
As Bruce Springsteen wails in the background, a written message appears and goes way beyond CCF's six-page application. "1B in projected sales," it says. "Coming Fall 2018… We're growing big things in the Garden State."