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In The Weeds

by Matt Skoufalos

The next big agribusiness in South Jersey may just be medical marijuana. That is, if proposed treatment centers ever find a place to call home.

If a certain group has their way, the new face of medical marijuana in New Jersey will be an unassumingly defunct light-industrial building at 120 Hancock Lane in Westampton, one-third of a mile off New Jersey Turnpike Exit 5.

Uncluttered and well-landscaped, the 40,000-square-foot building sits adjacent to a Cracker Barrel restaurant, a Hampton Inn hotel, and the Burlington County Occupational Training Center, a massive worksite at which the county provides vocational services for disabled residents. On an average weekday, the most commonly heard sounds on the property are those of recycling trucks, highway traffic, and geese foraging in the sprawling fields nearby.

To date, however, the neighbor making the most noise about the future of 120 Hancock is the 55-and-older community of Fernbrooke, which is situated directly across the street from the Occupational Training Center. On the record, Fernbrooke residents are less concerned that the former LED factory is built to federal clean-room standards and more that it will become a junkie flophouse for drug-seekers the state over.

“I’m not against medical marijuana,” says 72-year-old Val Hudson, a nine-year Fernbrooke resident. “We don’t think it belongs in the neighborhood where people live.”

That opinion carried the day in the Jan. 4 meeting of the Westampton Township Land Development Board, which voted 4-3 against an appeal lodged by the Compassionate Care Foundation to house its operations at 120 Hancock and 5-2 against its request for a zoning variance.

Compassionate Care is one of six Alternative Treatment Centers (ATC’s) licensed by the state of New Jersey to provide therapeutic medical marijuana for approved patients, and has been designated for operations in the region in which Westampton lies. Despite laying out a detailed case for the security, cleanliness and legality of its operations, the nonprofit group was rebuffed for the third time by the township, and will now seek relief in N.J. Superior Court. Similar efforts in Maple Shade, Bellmawr and, most recently, Camden have met similar fates.

“We’re not here to make money doing this,” said Compassionate Care CEO William Thomas in his testimony at the meeting. “We’re making medicine that can help people.”

Thomas said his fight for the Hancock Lane facility specifically hinges on its $1.5 million HVAC system, which makes the building “perfect” for temperature- and pressure-controlled hydroponic organic farming. If approved, the space would be used for growing, drying and processing the marijuana to be sold to qualifying patients. Thomas also spoke on the extensive barriers to accessing medical marijuana in New Jersey, which approves pharmaceutical derivatives of the drug only with a doctor’s prescription and background check, and only “as a treatment of last resort.”

Every patient appearing at the Westampton facility would be assigned exclusively to it and to no other ATC and admitted once monthly at an appointed time with an electronic ID card. Condition-specific nebulizers, lozenges, or transdermal lotions would be electronically dispensed by a biometric pharmacy machine, and would not be permitted to be consumed on the premises. Each prescription would be limited to one ounce per month, electronically traceable to each patient, who would have to re-qualify for the treatment quarterly. The products dispensed would be genetically engineered to contain minimal levels of THC, the euphoric ingredient in marijuana, rendering it useless to recreational users of the drug.

Thomas cited the exhaustive efforts of his organization to win the good will of the township: hosting job fairs, proposing a paid security detail for local police, and a preference to hire local residents, veterans and the disabled. He claims the facility would generate an estimated $8 million annually in taxes and direct salaries, and mentioned that seven applications for proposed jobs at the ATC have come from Fernbrooke residents.

As a pragmatist, Westampton Deputy Mayor Robert Maybury finds himself squarely in the middle of an issue that could define the identity of his community for decades. Generations of residents trace their family histories agriculturally, and he is no exception. Maybury talks about growing up on a working dairy farm that was founded by his grandfather in the 1920s.

He also describes the contemporary industrial identity of Westampton as being rooted in commercial warehousing—notable taxpayers include IKEA, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Mohawk Carpets—and how neighboring Mount Holly is the more popular landmark description among commercial enterprises that share their common zip code. A community where local politics traditionally center on tax reduction, he says, seems ill-suited for its time in the national spotlight on such a controversial issue.

For as much feedback as he’s heard from the vocal Fernbrooke residents, Maybury says, “Nobody came to the township and said, ‘Hey, there’s a vacant warehouse across from me. What are you going to do about it?’”

On the surface, the proposal by Compassionate Care Foundation seems “no different from Pfizer” coming in and setting up shop, he says; however, the stigma attached to growing marijuana, even for palliative care, may be too much for Westampton to overcome.

“There’s two ways of looking at it,” Maybury analyzes. “New Jersey OK’d it. It’s not our job to say ‘Keep them out because it’s federal law.’ [But] we’ve never had anything like this before [and] the fear is that this becomes something negative.”

“Marijuana is the Prohibition [question] of our time,” Maybury says. “Right now you look at the economy, the jobs. Legalizing marijuana isn’t going to be the downfall of our nation, but we are spending a ton on enforcement.”

The classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug is a big lie,” opines Ken Wolski, CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-NJ, an eight-year-old patients’ advocacy group. Wolski tracks the origins of federal marijuana law to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, when the drug was classified as a narcotic with a high potential for abuse which is unsafe for use even under medical conditions. (By comparison, painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin. are designated Schedule 2, marking them as less potentially harmful and less addictive in the eyes of the U.S. government). Since then, 16 states, including New Jersey, have passed laws that decriminalize medical use of the drug for a million patients nationwide who now use marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation.

“To say that it’s unsafe for use even under medical supervision is really nuts,” says Wolski, who has worked as a registered nurse for 35 years. “You can’t kill a person by giving them too much marijuana. There’s no allergic reaction to it that can cause a death like many other drugs,” including aspirin, he points out. “It’s even a tortured logic to say there’s a high abuse potential for marijuana. [Federal law states] that any unauthorized use of marijuana is abuse of marijuana—but they don’t authorize any use of marijuana except in these very small clinical trials.

“I think until we petition the federal government to reclassify marijuana to something that really makes sense, it leads to the kind of confusion and misunderstanding and absolute fear bordering on hysteria that we run into in these community meetings when an alternative treatment center is brought up,” Wolski says.

One way around the conflict, Wolski offers, is to provide a legal basis for the home cultivation of marijuana for approved patients. Wolski argues that because marijuana may be treated like a crop, it would thus be “entirely appropriate” to grow within Burlington County, especially within a secure greenhouse.

State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D–Princeton), the principal sponsor of the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act of 2009, says that in its original form, the measure contained such a provision, which was excised in health committee talks led by Burlington County Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D–Delran).

“If you look at the original bill, the Colorado/California model, which was in favor of prescription,” Gusciora says, “there were a lot of conservatives who were reluctant to vote the bill out of committee unless it was narrowed.”

The final language of the bill limited the prescription of medical marijuana in New Jersey to six ailments: multiple sclerosis, cachexia (wasting syndrome), Crohn’s disease, ALS, epilepsy and neurological issues, such as muscle spasticity. In the time since, the popularity of the New Jersey bill has eclipsed that of legacy legislation in more conservative states.

“As much as New Jersey is a progressive state, we became the strictest medicinal marijuana law in the nation,” Gusciora says, acknowledging that the bill does not authorize marijuana for the treatment of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, for which the medical use of marijuana has been authorized in other states.

Gusciora believes that selective federal enforcement regarding marijuana “has more to do with politics than anything,” and that the stringency of the New Jersey bill should protect any local governments who green light ATC’s.

“If the Feds are going to wholesalely bust state capitals, they’re going to do it in 15 other states than New Jersey,” he says, musing that laissez-faire assurances sought by Gov. Chris Christie of the Department of Justice were tantamount to “blanket immunity that U.S. attorneys don’t give the Scarfo brothers.”

As far as the potential for infringement of medical marijuana on New Jersey’s established pharmaceutical industry, marijuana is in no danger of “displac[ing] Johnson & Johnson’s lineup,” according to Gusciora.

The “most exciting” prospect that Gusciora sees blossoming out of the legislation is an opportunity for the state university system, including the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, to become a major player in U.S. medical marijuana studies. He says Christie’s plan, which was scuttled by Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick, could have been “a win-win for students.”

“There’s very little marijuana research conducted on U.S. soil,” Gusciora says. “I just hope that the new [Rutgers] president takes a better view of it. I actually had someone from the board of trustees of Stockton call me up and say, ‘We’ve got farms down here if you guys are serious,’ but by then Christie had moved on. It has been a long two-year process and I think it’s moving at a snail’s pace now.”

The six state-licensed ATC’s are expected to bring in $62 million statewide during the next decade, but other than creating jobs at the facilities themselves, Gusciora is unsure about the potential economic impact of medical marijuana in New Jersey. If suburban communities like Westampton or Maple Shade—where the township zoning board unanimously rejected an ATC proposal in October 2011—are reluctant to take up the charge, urban communities like Camden (which rejected a proposal last month) or Atlantic City, where Thomas says the Compassionate Care Foundation also has interests, may be less discriminating.

“If [New Jersey] moved the program at a little faster pace, we wouldn’t have these problems that we have with the suburban areas,” Gusciora says. “It’s almost this collective psychology of ‘They’re not doing it, so we’re not doing it.’ The more time that passes, the more these communities are going to second-guess themselves.

“They’re not going to lose anything, but they’re not going to gain anything either.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 11 (February, 2012).
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