For many advocates of medical marijuana, the opening of New Jersey's first dispensary was a milestone worth celebrating, even though the door was cracked open long enough to let in only 20 patients that day.

So far, 354 seriously ill people have state-issued licenses to buy the drug, but Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair said it could accommodate only a limited number when it finally opened Thursday, three months later than it had anticipated.

The rest will have to wait for a call setting up an appointment, Greenleaf said on its Facebook page. They will be contacted in the order in which they signed up.

Roseanne Scotti, director of New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that pushed for the legalization of medical marijuana, said: "We're thrilled. This really was a momentous, historic moment, the first time ever that seriously ill people have safe access to marijuana."

She acknowledged that it had been a "five-year battle" and that work still needed to be done to make the drug available to all seriously sick people who would use it to alleviate pain and nausea.

After two years of lobbying, the measure was signed into law three years ago, but there were delays in setting up the regulations and the approval process. Five other nonprofits were preliminarily approved to set up dispensaries, but none of them is ready to open.

Rich Caporusso of Medford, who has muscle spasms and an intestinal disease, said Greenleaf's opening was a painful disappointment.

Though Caporusso was among the first to register for the program in August, he did not make the opening-day cut. When he called to see if he would have an appointment next week, he said, he was told that Greenleaf would be closed Friday and that he should wait for a call about when it will reopen. He said he was also told he would be allowed to buy only a half-ounce - not the two ounces allowed per month by state law - because the supply was limited.

"I'm just so disgusted. . . . Nothing was really accomplished," he said.

In April, Caporusso sued the state Department of Health, claiming delays in the program caused him unnecessary suffering. He said his hopes rose when he heard Greenleaf was opening, but then were dashed.

The drive to the Essex County dispensary will take him two hours, and he said that was hardly worth it, since the amount has been reduced. Unlike in most of the 17 states and Washington, D.C., that have medical marijuana laws, the drug will have a reduced potency under New Jersey's stringent regulations.

Some patients are trying to be upbeat about waiting for the call to pick up their marijuana.

"Assuming the pace doesn't pick up . . . I would be getting it on the 10th day," said Jay Lassiter, a Cherry Hill man with HIV who lobbied for the law. He said he was just guessing based on when he signed up, a week or so after the registry opened.

"Christmas might be coming early for me?" he asked.

Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, said he had mixed feelings about Greenleaf's opening.

"Some people are getting access to medicine, but I have to look at the bigger picture," he said. Tens of thousands of hospice patients in New Jersey qualify for the drug, but only a few hundred have been able to meet the state's prerequisites for obtaining it, he said.

"Getting marijuana to 300 people after three years is not a successful program," he said.

Julio Valentin, a cofounder of Greenleaf, told reporters on opening day that he was excited to finally be in business, but said the nonprofit's "intention was never to take care of the entire state of New Jersey. . . . It's a heavy burden."

Valentin did not return calls or e-mails asking when Greenleaf would see more patients.

The other dispensaries - including one planning to open in Egg Harbor, Atlantic County, in the spring - are still finding locations or awaiting state approvals.

The day after Greenleaf opened, State Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Union), an author of the medical marijuana law, said: "I understand people's frustrations. . . . But it is a day to celebrate that we got it off the ground. . . . It's a work in progress."

He said he would continue to push for changes so that the program could reach more people.

"It's going to get better," he said. "It's been a long and slow process, but we're starting an industry from the ground up."

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), another primary sponsor of the law, said the process had been bittersweet.

"I realize, in any opening of anything, there have to be kinks to be worked out," he said. "That said, it's up to the Department of Health to move this program faster and to assist Greenleaf and any other potential dispensary in moving along. We need to keep the patients in mind."

Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth), another backer of medical marijuana, said he was confident the program would pick up the pace.

"I think the process will move faster now," he said. . . . "It's brand-new, but a dispensary has opened."

Contact Jan Hefler

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