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Christie proposes $1.6M for medical-marijuana program

Gov. Christie has proposed a $1.6 million budget for New Jersey's three-year-old medical marijuana program.

Gov. Christie has proposed a $1.6 million budget for New Jersey's three-year-old medical marijuana program - more than twice the current spending plan - in anticipation that more dispensaries will open this year.

So far, only one of the six nonprofits that the state selected as dispensary operators two years ago has opened for business. In December, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, Essex County, began selling the drug to the first wave of the more than 800 registered patients. Many patients are on a waiting list.

The governor's proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1, is based on the expectation that more dispensaries "will come on line as they get local approval to open and operate in communities," Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. "That will require more resources from the state in terms of inspection, product testing, and supervision.

The current budget is $784,000.

The increased funding will pay for additional staff to cover those tasks and to conduct background checks, which include an investigation of the finances of the dispensary operators and boards, said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health.

Four of the remaining five nonprofits are moving forward with plans to open, she said. One of them, Compassionate Care Foundation, is renovating its facility in Egg Harbor Township so that it can begin growing marijuana.

Only Compassionate Sciences Inc., which is designated to open a dispensary in South Jersey, is still looking for a location.

State Sen. Declan J. O'Scanlon Jr. (R., Monmouth), a supporter of the marijuana program, said last month that he had expected an increase in the medical marijuana budget this year. "Once these places are up and running . . . the department will have to do more inspections and one would assume there would be more work," he said.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said the increased budget wouldn't help patients who have been denied access to the medicine by numerous program delays.

"We do not believe that there will be a meaningful implementation of the medicinal marijuana program until the regulations that are impeding this program are revised," Wolski said.

He contends that the dispensary owners are struggling to comply with a plethora of rules and that doctors don't want to register because of the program's onerous restrictions.

Leusner has said the program is complex and the regulations are needed to make sure it withstands federal scrutiny. Though the Justice Department views marijuana as illegal, it has said it won't prosecute in states where the drug is restricted to medical use.

Leusner also said that efforts are being made to streamline approval of dispensaries. "Staff have made several visits to ATCs (dispensaries) prior to their getting permits to help them prepare for inspection," she said.

Christie, who inherited the program from his predecessor, Jon Corzine, has said that he never would have signed the medical marijuana bill. Since then, he has said that he wants strict regulations to prevent the abuse of marijuana programs seen in California and several other states that adopted them years ago.

More than one-third of states now have a medical marijuana program.