By Michael Alan Goldberg
Rues Road—which winds through an idyllic and remote area of Upper Freehold Township, New Jersey, past lush farm fields and the occasional McMansion set back on a sprawling parcel of land—doesn’t look much like a battlefield. But it’s become ground zero in the fight over the state’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, in limbo for nearly two years since former Gov. Jon Corzine signed the bill on his last day of office in January 2010.
A pot farm wants to move into a property on Rues Road, residents are up-in-arms, and medical marijuana advocates say a tiny but adamant group of anti-weed activists is behind efforts to stall the act indefinitely. And while many eyes here have been focused on New Jersey’s nascent medical marijuana program as a potential model for Pennsylvania to adopt, the only lesson that seems to be coming out of the Garden State is how to pass a law without ever actually implementing it.
In July, Gov. Chris Christie, who’s made no bones about his disdain for the law, reluctantly announced that New Jersey was forging ahead with the delayed and highly regulated program because the federal government—which still classifies marijuana as an illegal substance with no medicinal value—assured him that state and local employees at facilities growing or dispensing the drug would not be prosecuted.
The announcement gave the green light to six nonprofit alternative treatment centers (ATCs) mandated by the act as the state’s sole providers of medical marijuana—two ATCs each in South, Central and North Jersey—to find suitable locations for their operations, with the provision that they first had to get approval from local municipalities before setting up shop.
So far, that’s proved difficult. In October, Compassionate Sciences ATC’s proposed location in Maple Shade was rejected by the township’s zoning board. The Compassionate Care Foundation ATC received the preliminary go-ahead for a site in Westampton, Burlington County, but was informed a few weeks ago that it now has to go before the township’s Land Development Board early next year for approval.
But things have reached a fever pitch in Upper Freehold, where Breakwater ATC wants to set up its marijuana grow operation on a half-acre of land on one of two sites along Rues Road (they’re also considering two other sites within a mile of Rues Road). Hundreds of outraged people packed a local school auditorium on Nov. 22 to express their concerns over a possible increase in danger and crime—armed thugs coming to their quiet town to steal the weed, marijuana customers smoking weed in the Breakwater parking lot then driving around stoned, etc.—as well as the stigma of being home to a pot farm. In the wake of that meeting, the Upper Freehold Township Committee is set to pass an ordinance on Dec. 15 that would ban any enterprise that violates federal law.
Despite Christie’s public assurances that the feds will keep their noses out of pot farms throughout the state, that’s still not good enough for Upper Freehold Mayor LoriSue Mount, an ardent Christie backer who sits on the five-person township committee and strongly supports the ordinance on principle. “It’s not a decision about whether medical marijuana is right or wrong, or right in Upper Freehold Township or another town,” she says, insisting that she’s not necessarily personally opposed to the idea of medical marijuana for patients suffering from cancer and other debilitating diseases. “It’s strictly that it’s prohibited by federal law, and if we stop paying attention to the laws, where do we end up? It would be anarchy.”
But Chris Goldstein, spokesman for the Coalition of Medical Marijuana New Jersey, says that’s bogus. He believes Christie purposely delayed implementation of a law he personally despised under the guise of concerns about federal prosecution—which Goldstein says would be “remarkably unlikely”—as long as he could, and now the tactic is being employed on the local level.
“The very clear friction that’s happening between state and federal law on this issue is making it easier for a minority opposition to hold back this law,” Goldstein laments.
Noting that a Rutgers-Eagleton poll issued on Nov. 30 found that 86 percent of New Jerseyans support medical marijuana, Goldstein believes that just a handful of people are coordinating efforts across the state to stymie ATCs from getting the necessary municipal approvals.
“What you’ve got is sour-grapes opposition who lost the battle for the bill reorganizing opposition on the local level, in each of the places there’s a land use hearing,” says Goldstein, pointing to one foe in particular: 64-year-old Belvidere lawyer David Evans, head of the Drug Free Schools Coalition and a longtime anti-pot crusader.
Goldstein accuses Evans of using “reefer madness” scare tactics—through phone calls, e-mails and other means—to rile up locals in Upper Freehold, Maple Shade and elsewhere, as well as get in the ears of various committee members, zoning officials and others in charge of the ATC approval process. He says Evans or his close allies have “been spotted at many of these hearings,” an assertion backed up by Chuck Kwiatkowski, 40, a fellow medicinal pot advocate who suffers from multiple sclerosis and says he smokes weed in lieu of 27 prescriptions (at a cost of several hundreds of dollars a month that he doesn’t have) recommended by his doctor.
Kwiatkowski, who lives in North Jersey, says he traveled to the Nov. 22 meeting in Upper Freehold to support Breakwater because he figured Evans would be there. He says Evans wasn’t there, but claims that some of his people (whom Kwiatkowski recognized from other hearings) were—heckling him and chanting slogans like “Up with hope, down with dope.”
“They treated me like I was the devil, and I have MS,” says Kwiatkowski.
Reached by phone at his Belvidere office, Evans says the accusations being leveled at him are ridiculous. He denies attending any meetings anywhere in the state relating to ATC approvals. He says he’s spoken with one member of the Upper Freehold Township Committee (whose name he says he can’t recall) “briefly on the phone” and “I may have talked to a council member in Montclair,” where Greenleaf Compassion Center is trying to open a pot dispensary.
“I have not had an ongoing communication with any of these people,” says Evans. “The only thing I’ve done was I’ve sent them the arguments why [medical marijuana] is illegal under federal law, and I’ve tried to show them news stories about what’s been happening in other states and how local people are objecting to it and so forth.”
Evans also denies that he’s responsible for any kind of effort to stir up local residents in areas where ATCs are trying to lay down roots.
“What these people would like to do is blame this all on me instead of saying that there are people in the state that don’t like this,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to make me into a bogeyman than accept the reality of what’s really going on here.”
Upper Freehold resident Kimberly Lima, a 40-year-old mother of two small boys, says she’s spearheaded local opposition to Breakwater—personally obtaining more than 600 signatures for a petition against the ATC—mostly over concerns about her family’s security. She insists she’s never heard of Evans, and resents the suggestion that he’s behind the furor.
|”I find it so highly offensive that we would need an outside influence to tell us what we can do in our neighborhood,” she fumes. “Most of the reason why we’re so against Breakwater coming here is because we know our area. And we know how this is going to change the character of the area.”
Evans says he’s delighted by the opposition to Breakwater and the other ATCs. Anti-pot to the hilt, Evans cites numerous studies that claim marijuana is harmful, particularly to people suffering from cancer and HIV/AIDS. He says there’s no scientific basis for medical marijuana, and points out that smoked marijuana has never been approved as medicine by the Food and Drug Administration. Evans thinks the public has been hoodwinked by medical marijuana advocates whose real goal, he believes, is the legalization of recreational weed, which, he says, “would be a disaster.”
“These medical marijuana people make very compassionate arguments and they bring in people in wheelchairs, and everybody says ‘Ohhhh’ and their hearts melt and they say, ‘Give them whatever they want,’” says Evans, who also disputes the veracity of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll.
“If you ask, ‘Are you in favor of giving marijuana to people who are dying and in pain?’ then sure, everybody would say, ‘Yeah.’ But if you ask, ‘Are you in favor of giving people a medicine that isn’t safe or effective and hasn’t been approved by the FDA?’ then people would not be in favor of it.”
Breakwater says that if the Upper Freehold ordinance is passed on Dec. 15, they’ll challenge it in court. A statement issued by the company last week read, in part, “We will use every means at our disposal to enforce our right to own and operate a greenhouse facility that complies with existing zoning regulations…this course of action would be both expensive and regrettable for all parties involved.”
In a subsequent phone conversation, a Breakwater representative reiterated the company’s intention to make a stand in Upper Freehold rather than give up and seek an alternate site—as other ATCs have done—and endure similar struggles in other towns.
Goldstein says that if the state’s medical marijuana program wasn’t so over-regulated, and that home cultivation was allowed, the current mess wouldn’t exist. Still, he believes Christie and members of the New Jersey Legislature could put a stop to all of the delays and maneuverings by publicly exerting pressure on municipalities to comply with the Act. But he says their silence speaks volumes.
“It’s all politics—they can have the appearance of being compassionate, but at the same time they can know that on the ground they’re never really going to have an operating program,” says Goldstein, who says that most patients in New Jersey have given up hope that they’ll ever be able to get their hands on legal medicinal marijuana.
“This program has been designed to fail.”
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