The first local board in New Jersey to consider allowing a medical marijuana site turned the request down Wednesday, possibly a harbinger of more delays to come in getting the Garden State’s medical marijuana program running.
The Maple Shade zoning board unanimously agreed that an alternative treatment center is not a permitted use for a former office furniture store along Route 73.
Board members said they would rather see a treatment center close to a hospital. There are no hospitals in the community, a largely blue-collar Philadelphia suburb of 19,000 whose unassuming motto is “Nice town, friendly people.”
Compassionate Sciences Alternative Treatment Center hopes to open to patients early next year. Spokesman Andrei Bogolubov said the group would consider appealing the board decision, but he said the group has other sites in mind.
It's one of six nonprofit groups licensed earlier this year by the state to grow and sell medical marijuana under the strictest of the 16 state laws that allow medical marijuana.
Its advocates say marijuana can ease symptoms such as pain and nausea. Under New Jersey's law, there would be restrictions on how much cannabis registered patients could get, and -- unlike in other states -- even the potency of the drug. Only patients with certain conditions-- among them terminal cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis -- will be eligible, and they must have the recommendation of a doctor who's been treating them for a year.
Compassionate Sciences and the five other licensed alternative treatment centers are awaiting final regulations from the state government before they can begin growing and selling pot.
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The state Health and Seniors Services Department says those rules, delayed amid concerns from Gov. Chris Christie about medical marijuana, will be in place by the end of the year.
Only one other center -- Compassionate Care Foundation -- has announced a potential site. It's in Westampton, just off Exit 5 of the New Jersey Turnpike and only about a dozen miles from the site that was rejected Wednesday.
Compassionate Sciences picked a former office furniture store in Maple Shade about a mile from Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike and located amid a swirl of highways that separate the site from any homes and all but a few businesses.
“We will be a discrete, secure, professional and confidential operation,” Will Stapter, chairman of Compassionate Sciences, told the board.
Mike Nelson, the chief operating officer for Compassionate Sciences, said New Jersey headed off the possibility of abuse largely because it isn't allowing pot to be used to treat chronic pain unless it's accompanied by another serious illness.
Some members of the public -- though only one of them was a Maple Shade resident -- spoke in favor of allowing the dispensary. But it was the critics who got applause as they talked about their worries about crime, children getting the drug, patients driving under the influence, property values and their community's reputation.
James Quick, who said his late son was an addict, said he worried about the town's safety and reputation.
“What's to stop these people from going out in that parking lot, smoking that joint, getting high as a kite, going out on that highway and killing somebody?” he asked the zoning board. “We're going to be known as the marijuana capital of New Jersey... What are we, California? What's next -- palm trees down Main Street?”
Others said they see the value of medical marijuana, but they don't want it in their area.
“I do believe in alternative treatments,” said Michael Kirk, a Maple Shade resident and registered nurse who has a daughter with epilepsy whom he believes may one day benefit from medical marijuana. “I just don't believe that alternative treatments should be on 73 in Maple Shade.”