New Jersey Patients Stranded and in Pain Over Scarcity of Medical Marijuana

Three years after medical cannabis was legalized in the Garden State, the fight to make it available has only just begun. By Abby Haglage.

Most nights, 52-year-old Marta Portuguez wakes up crying from pain—jolted out of sleep by horrifying muscle spasms that occur without warning. “I cry my eyes out,” she tells The Daily Beast. “It feels like someone is chopping up my legs with a machete or burning them with a torch from the inside out.” Diagnosed with 11 illnesses over the course of 9 years—including severe fibromyalgia and gastroparesis—the former Comcast executive and mother of 6 now knows only 2 levels of pain: excruciating and unbearable.

One of more than 1,000 on the waiting list at New Jersey’s sole legal dispensary for medical marijuanaGreenleaf Compassion Center—her patience is wearing thin. “I keep waiting for them to call,” she says. “I have my card. I’m ready to go. I passed.” Exhausted from the chronic pain that pulsates through her body day and night, she chokes up on the phone. “This is my body. I should be able to obtain any medicine that I deem OK for me. This is not the government’s right to decide!” Her audible anger is telling: Greenleaf won’t be calling anytime soon. There simply isn’t enough medical marijuana to go around in New Jersey—and she knows it.

Three years after former governor Jon Corzine made medical cannabis legal, New Jersey’s pot program is a mess. The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act of 2010 represented a triumphant culmination of five-year revolution to legalize medical marijuana. Led by groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and patients themselves, like 40-year-old HIV-positive political activist Jay Lassiter, New Jersey joined a list of states including California and Colorado that legalized.

Upon hearing the news that the bill had passed in 2010, like many suffering with chronic pain, Portuguez was euphoric. “It was my light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “I was so excited.”

Scheduled to take effect six months after passing in January 2010, the bill allocated three months to New Jersey’s Department of Health and Senior Services to sort out regulations and licensing. In other words, to pick the nonprofits that would host the dispensaries. Six were chosen. Spirits were high. “We were sure it wouldn’t be long,” Lassiter says. “How wrong we were.”

Thirty-six months later, there is one medical marijuana dispensary in New Jersey—one. Nestled between a bike shop and a restaurant on a gray avenue in Montclair, the small Greenleaf Compassion Center is as hidden as a main-street storefront can be. Blacked-in windows cradle a black front door, which—barring a small black mailbox—is bare. The two owners, Joe Stevens and Julio Valentin, have good reason to foster a low profile. After being dragged mercilessly through a slow and deliberate process of approval from Gov. Chris Christie, they opened Greenleaf’s doors December 6 to a slew of media attention, not all of it friendly. The owners now hold the impressive—but daunting—distinction as New Jersey’s sole medical marijuana dispensary. Pouring their entire savings into making the center a reality, they had imagined serving a few hundred patients a year. Now 1,000 and counting are knocking on their door, and the weed isn’t growing any faster.

With the five other dispensaries months from opening, patient demand has blown past supply—a problem that will only get worse. In the midst of the mess, outsiders are left wondering who’s to blame.

For patients like Portuguez, it's all about Christie. Criticized early on for “stonewalling” the medical-marijuana law, many believe he deliberately made the approval process for dispensaries near impossible—essentially setting the program up for failure. Responding to critics who called the program disorganized, Christie made things worse in November 2011 when he appointed a former police veteran—specializing in criminal records—to run it. With what many deem the most “restrictive medical marijuana program” in the U.S., New Jerseyans still suffering without the medicine are blaming him. “He’s taking my life and dealing with it as he pleases,” says Portuguez. “It’s my body. It’s my illness. It should never be the government’s call.”

Crusaders like Lassiter agree. After enduring 20 years with HIV, Lassiter says, he was “lucky” enough to make it to the top of Greenleaf’s list and become one of the first in the state of New Jersey to receive medical cannabis. But despite his victory, he’s still furious over the governor’s role in creating a “bureaucratically cumbersome” process that leaves many without the drugs they need. Admittedly one of the “lucky ones,” Lassiter is not about to leave his comrades on the waiting list behind. “This is all Christie’s fault. It’s a climate of fear and reefer-madness craziness,” he says. “It’s big government at its worst.”

Dr. Jeffrey Pollack, one of the 199 doctors permitted to “recommend” medical marijuana (by law, it cannot technically be prescribed) as a treatment option for patients in New Jersey, says the Department of Health and Senior Services is at fault. “They’ve done everything to make the system fail in the long run,” he says. With a lack of organization, unclear guidelines, and now a newly retired state-police officer running the program, Pollack says, they’re treating the bill’s implementation as a “criminal enterprise.”

An internist who often works with patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, Pollack has seen firsthand how wrong their views of marijuana truly are. When asked if he can explain how it helps his patients with MS, Pollack rambles off a laundry list with ease. “It improves their quality of life, decreases their everyday pain, acts as an antidepressant, improves their sleep, improves bladder function.” Although he’s recommended a dose of medical marijuana to a only handful of patients thus far, he says more will undoubtedly be on the way. “The department of health needs to stop nitpicking, dragging their feet, and get these other centers open.”

To those in the state, it’s undeniably a New Jersey problem. But to pioneers in the world of medical marijuana, like Dr. Denis Petro, there’s something bigger to blame: the federal government. As the author of a 1970s groundbreaking study on the effect of cannabis on multiple sclerosis, Petro is a bona fide expert on the subject. While he agrees that things in New Jersey are particularly messy—adding that its “location as a pharmaceutical powerhouse doesn’t help things”—he says problems in state governments pale in comparison to the incompetence of the current DEA head, Michele Leonhart. Citing a well-known moment for those in the marijuana world, he lends proof in the form of a YouTube clip. Leonhart, initially selected under George W. Bush, was reappointed by President Obama as the head of the DEA. For that reason, Petro reluctantly deems Obama’s the “most regressive” administration in the history of medical marijuana.

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The blame game, while therapeutic, won’t solve anything quickly. And time is exactly what the patients on Greenleaf’s waiting list do not have. “So many of the other patients that fought for it, to get the bill passed, they’re dead,” Lassiter tells me. But the knowledge of fleeting time only makes the political activists’ passion grow. “I’m a patriot. I’m fighting to make our country better,” he says proudly. “There are more important things to do than going after people who smoke pot.”

He’s got a point.