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Medical marijuana sales begin in N.J.

When Jay Lassiter took his first-ever toke of medical marijuana Tuesday evening, he knew it would relieve the nausea he experiences from the nine prescription drugs he consumes daily to treat HIV.

Jay Lassiter , treated for HIV, smokes medical marijuana at his home in Cherry Hill. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Jay Lassiter , treated for HIV, smokes medical marijuana at his home in Cherry Hill. TOM GRALISH / Staff PhotographerRead more

When Jay Lassiter took his first-ever toke of medical marijuana Tuesday evening, he knew it would relieve the nausea he experiences from the nine prescription drugs he consumes daily to treat HIV.

For years, the political consultant has kept a marijuana-filled pipe in his Cherry Hill kitchen to calm his frequently upset stomach and to nudge him to eat when his appetite flagged.

Still, it was an emotional moment when he finally was able to purchase the drug - legally - from licensed operators at the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Essex County, New Jersey's first dispensary.

Satisfaction and a sense of legitimacy washed over Lassiter, who spent six years testifying at state hearings and buttonholing legislators so that seriously ill patients could win the right to use a drug many doctors believe helps alleviate pain or treats serious ailments such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, HIV, and Crohn's disease.

The former Statehouse blogger for Blue Jersey, a liberal website, was among the first of more than 300 licensed medical marijuana patients in the Garden State to buy the drug. It was an auspicious day, he said.

"It means the beginning of the end of the drug war has come to New Jersey, and, on a more personal level, the completion of a longtime personal and professional goal, to make medical marijuana accessible to sick people. . . . Pot is not a bad thing," said Lassiter, 40.

The dispensary in tony Montclair opened Dec. 6 after much delay.

After consulting with a Greenleaf doctor for about 15 minutes, Lassiter emerged from the center wearing a grin. He waved a receipt showing he had just paid $406 for three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. The olive-colored buds were in three ziplock pouches, sorted by strain and potency.

Lassiter had purchased Indica for nighttime use and Sativa to allow him to function during the day. He estimated that there was probably enough for 30 small joints, which he said should control his nausea and pain for a month. He said the price was "roughly comparable" to what he paid on the black market.

Included in the bill was $26.60 because the Christie administration has ruled that medicinal marijuana is subject to the state's 7 percent sales tax, unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

"It's insulting to me to have to pay this tax. But in a strange way, it feels like a victory, because the drug is now legal," said Lassiter, a gay-rights activist who has been in a civil union for nine years.

"If I get pulled over when I have marijuana, I won't have to worry about getting arrested. . . . We are changing the culture of fear."

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), a sponsor of the medical marijuana law, said patients have told him that they or their loved ones had purchased the drug on the black market and looked forward to when they no longer would worry about prosecution.

"I don't think you should make criminals out of terminally ill people," Gusciora said, explaining why he pushed for the law, signed in January 2010.

More than a third of the states, not including Pennsylvania, have made medical marijuana legal. The Obama administration has said it will not prosecute dispensaries that comply with state laws even though the federal government considers the drug illegal.

Lassiter said that Joe Stevens, Greenleaf's CEO, called him last week to set up his appointment personally. Stevens told him to bring his state cannabis license, a second form of identification, and cash. Insurance companies don't cover the drug.

In an interview this summer, Stevens, 40, a former funeral director, said he partnered with a childhood friend, Julio Valentin, 44, a retired Newark police detective, to open Greenleaf.

"My dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 30 years ago, and his oncologist recommended he smoke marijuana to counter the effects of chemotherapy," Stevens said.

His father had refused because of the stigma about "being stoned," but Stevens said he heard from funeral clients that they had provided the drug to their dying loved ones.

"I heard stories from the families we served about how marijuana helped them function" better than when the patients used morphine or other addictive narcotics to control pain.

Five other nonprofit companies have been given preliminary approval to open dispensaries, including one expected to set up shop in Egg Harbor, near Atlantic City, in the spring. But they have faced hurdles in getting approvals.

Stevens had not anticipated that his dispensary would have to serve the entire state, he said. "It's a heavy burden," he said at a news conference on opening day. Patients must wait for Greenleaf to call them and set up an appointment.

Under stringent regulations imposed by the Christie administration, Greenleaf operates discreetly. It is in a storefront property that makes no visual reference to marijuana.

Christie wants to ensure that the drug doesn't fall into the hands of people who are not sick, he has said. To avoid the situation that has arisen in California, where passersby are invited into well-marked marijuana dispensaries by hawkers, the state Health Department has established numerous regulations.

Greenleaf's storefront window and exterior walls are black. On a black awning are printed its name and address only.

When Lassiter arrived, a uniformed guard checked his credentials before allowing him in. A reporter and photographer were not allowed to enter and were warned that the "state police don't want anyone loitering on the sidewalk outside."

Advocates and some patients say the regulations go too far, creating too many hurdles for ill people. Patients with only about a dozen illnesses qualify for the drug, and doctors must register before they can authorize marijuana treatments. Too few doctors have signed up, say those seeking the drug.

The appearance of the storefront makes a patient feel "sneaky," Lassiter said, "like we're going into an adult bookstore. We shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable."

He said he was sorry the program is not accessible to more people and is not affordable to many. Besides being forced to pay cash for the drug and doctors' visits, patients must purchase $200 a year for a state license.

But he was extremely happy that the day had arrived when he could legally buy cannabis, he said.

"Yes, I had to drive two hours to get here, but this is ... awesome," Lassiter said. "We won. It's a milestone."

Lassiter was impressed with his staff consultation at Greenleaf. "There are questions you can't ask a drug dealer. . . . There is an alternative now, and I'm realizing how good this program is," he said.

As soon as he got home, he decided to try the marijuana out.

"I'm high on endorphins from this feeling of success, but now I am going to smoke cannabis, legally purchased and legally inhaled," he said, filling a small silver pipe.

Though he smoked the drug recreationally as a student at Temple University, he said that now, he only wants it to control pain and to keep from vomiting his medicine.

"My medications are keeping me alive, and I need to keep taking them," said Lassiter, who typically smoked a few puffs once a week.

"I'm not going to get giddy from this," he said, explaining that growers reduce the drug's active ingredient, THC, which produces euphoria, to 10 percent to comply with state regulations.

After a couple of puffs, Lassiter joked that it "tastes a little nutty, with musky overtones." Then he put the rest away.

"I have work to do tomorrow to make this program better," he said, referring to his lobbying efforts. First on his agenda?

"Making hepatitis patients eligible for medical marijuana," he said. "And then veterans who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder."