Ready, Set, Grow: The Latest on Vineland's Medical Marijuana Facility

Last Edited: Jan 16, 2019 8:52 AM -05:00

New Jersey state approval last month for six new medicinal marijuana integrated dispensaries means more access to the drug for patients in need, but not without some controversy for the communities involved.

Columbia Care, LLC, one of the largest marijuana companies in the nation, is on track to start operation in Vineland soon. This comes as a result of its selection to apply for permits to open a medical marijuana growing facility and dispensary in connection with Governor Phil Murphy’s policy of expanding the state’s Medical Marijuana Program (MMP). The firm already operates in 13 other states.

Columbia Care and the other five successful applicants were picked on merit from a pool of 146 proposals from more than 100 different companies. A special inter-agency panel connected to the state Department of Health chose two companies from each region of the state—North, Central, and South.

The other new dispensary in southern New Jersey is MPX New Jersey in Atlantic City, which will cultivate in Galloway Township. Already, there are two established locations in the south region—Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township and Curaleaf in Bellmawr.

Integrated dispensaries grow, manufacture, and sell leaf marijuana and cannabis products and are now called Alternate Treatment Centers (ATC).

The N.J. Compassionate Use Medicinal Marijuana Act passed in January 2010 but the first dispensaries didn’t open for several years as Republican Governor Chris Christie delayed the law’s implementation. The Murphy administration has reversed that direction dramatically.

There are now about 38,000 MMP patients, a doubling of the number since Gov. Murphy took office a year ago. Also, five new, broad, qualifying medical conditions were added to the original restricted list.

“Six very strong applicants were selected, including minority-owned and women-owned businesses,” Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal said. “We are committed to an equitable expansion of supply to meet growing patient demand, and these new locations will reach patients that currently have to travel longer distances to obtain the therapy.”

“Columbia Care is truly honored to have been selected to continue the permitting process in New Jersey,” said Nicholas Vita, co-founder and CEO of the company and a former Goldman Sachs executive. “Since its inception, Columbia Care has held itself to the highest regulatory standards and works tirelessly to ensure safety, product consistency and patient satisfaction.

“The company trusts that its dedication to these core values along with its commitment to data collection and innovation are among some of the driving factors behind the state’s decision to allow Columbia Care to continue the permitting process,” he added.

(Columbia Care is not to be confused with Complete Care, a regional community health care network.)

Cannabis was a medical and herbal remedy for human ailments for centuries. In the U.S., cannabis tinctures were patent medicines during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Under modern medicine, it first became common in the 1980s and ’90s, while still illegal, as a palliative treatment in end-stage AIDS, then for chemotherapy illness in cancer patients and for epilepsy. Since, it has been successfully used to treat many chronic diseases ranging from glaucoma to Multiple Sclerosis. It is also being used now for anxiety, depression, and opioid dependence. (See box on page 16 for qualifying conditions.)

Patients who come here are often dependent on opiate painkillers.

A total of 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have approved a comprehensive public medical marijuana/cannabis program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Only 10 states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized marijuana use recreationally, without a prescription. A bill is pending in New Jersey to legalize the drug for those 21 and over, which has fewer restrictions than many other states. States adopt these laws to generate a significant revenue stream through special taxes on the industry and, thus, benefit taxpayers.

In the November election, Vineland voters approved a non-binding referendum by a margin of 60 to 40 percent to approve the production of soley medical marijuana in the city. But the imminent expansion of its growth, manufacture and marketing in Cumberland County is not without its critics.

Joseph M. Williams is executive director/CEO of the Southwest Council, Inc. With headquarters in Vineland for decades, the highly acclaimed organization serves four southern New Jersey counties with education, prevention, and treatment for substance abuse patients and families and addresses the impact of drug use on communities.

“Research has shown that greater accessibility to substances such as marijuana causes more people to use them,” Williams said. “This leads to more widespread use affecting others; it’s a cycle.

“This is not a safe, non-addictive drug. It has a mind-altering, mood-altering effect.”

Currently, there are about a dozen Cumberland County physicians registered with the Department of Health authorizing them to enroll patients in the MMP. Traditional prescriptions are not created; the patients’ registrations give them access to counseling and product at an ATC. The number of registered doctors in the state has gone up significantly in the past year.

One of these specialists is Shawn Puri, MD, of Relievus Pain Management and Neurology, located in downtown Vineland. The company has 18 locations in New Jersey and four in eastern Pennsylvania.

The medical group treats chronic pain, neurological disorders, and mood disorders using several traditional and cutting-edge modalities, including Ketamine infusion, stem-cell PRP treatment, opioid pain relief, and marijuana.

“Medical marijuana is obviously a new therapy, becoming more popular,” Puri, a Vineland native, said.

“It is more natural than opioid-based treatment,” he added. “We’ve had many success stories of patients who have transitioned completely from narcotic therapy to marijuana.”

We don’t want this in an easily accessible area.

The Sore Spot on South Delsea Drive in Vineland is a pain treatment center. It also treats chronic pain through different therapies, including marijuana and advertises immediate appointments and the lowest fees in the area.

“Patients who come here are often dependent on opiate painkillers,” said the company’s CEO, Leonard Vernon, MD. “They want to lower their use of those drugs; we explain medical marijuana to them as a more natural alternative and closely monitor them in follow-up treatment.”

Medical marijuana is not covered by any health insurance program.

While Columbia Care has won the right to enter the permitting process for building a marijuana growing center and dispensary in Vineland, the road to actually opening the doors runs past several more levels of state certification and standard local planning, zoning, and retail licensing procedures by the city regulatory boards and ultimately approval by city council and the mayor.

Other than property taxes and operating license fees, localities get no extra revenue from medicinal dispensaries. The state collects the sales tax (usually 6.625 percent) plus registration fees paid by patients. New Jersey’s proposed recreational marijuana bill, on the other hand, currently includes a special tax assessment in the range of 10 to 12 percent of product sales with municipalities getting a share.

Apparently, city officials have two primary concerns about Columbia Care or any other future ATC: Location and possible relationship to recreational marijuana.

Government leaders feel the center should not be in a residential or general traffic commercial area, but rather in an industrial zone. Some believe a location near Inspira Medical Center on West Sherman Avenue would be acceptable.

“We don’t want this in an easily accessible area,” said Vineland City Council President Paul Spinelli. “People who want it can go out and get it.”

Tainting the medical pot industry is the general stigma of marijuana, which exists because it remains illegal under federal law and, to some, leads to addiction and social problems.

It’s a complicated issue, especially with the New Jersey legislature now considering legalization of recreational pot and a corresponding expungement of prior arrests for it.

While Vineland’s referendum didn’t include the issue of recreational pot, the simultaneous one in Bridgeton did. There, by razor-thin margins in a three-part, non-binding question, voters rejected allowing what is called “adult-use” marijuana to be distributed within city limits; supported facilities that cultivate and/or distribute it to other retail facilities; and resolved (in a more one-sided vote) that, if Bridgeton does allow any recreational marijuana retail, cultivation, or distribution facilities, they must be confined to areas zoned for industrial.

While some Vineland officials are concerned about the distribution of medicinal, the opposition to recreational is more vehement.

The current state legislation under consideration includes a “local option” to bar the drug’s sale as simply an intoxicant and, even if recreational sales are legalized in New Jersey, it doesn’t appear it will ever happen here.

“Some Columbia Care businesses produce recreational,” Spinelli said. “City Council is totally opposed to that and, if allowed by state law, would vote unanimously to reject recreational production or marketing in the city—we don’t want it here.”

Columbia Care said it remains focused on providing transformative, pharmaceutical-quality cannabis to qualifying patients in each one of the 14 states it holds licenses and the opportunity to participate in adult-use programs where it is already operating under a medical program is evaluated on a market-by-market basis.

Approximately 40 New Jersey municipalities have passed laws banning recreational marijuana businesses, including Ocean City, which unanimously approved its ordinance on first reading last week. However, if legalization does happen, these towns wouldn’t be able to prevent residents who are at least 21 years old from possessing small amounts of marijuana and using it in a residence.

Physicians don’t ignore the possibility of abuse by their medical marijuana patients.

“Medical marijuana patients need to accept responsibility in their usage, and we counsel them on that,” Puri said. “They are sometimes subject to urological screening and we follow them, hoping they will use it exclusively for treatment purposes.”

In addition to traditional leaf for smoking, medical marijuana dispensaries provide the product in vaping oil, topical, and, when indicated, indigestible forms. Puri thinks smoking is not the way to go for his patients.

“Smoking in general can put patients at risk,” he said. “I counsel them to use other forms to lessen risk.”

Vineland’s planning board is researching and weighing the proper zoning for Columbia Care, which would be the first firm of its type within city limits.

Vita is anxious to move forward with his company’s build-out for many reasons, including the boost to local employment it will bring to the city and county.

“We have plans to do a job fair,” he said. “We’d love for people who have an interest to reach out to us and send their resumes to our website,” 

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