With demand for medical marijuana surging in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy in July called for a doubling of the state's program, from six dispensaries to as many as 12.
The state Department of Health received 146 applications for those six additional medical marijuana providers. But under that crush of paperwork, the DOH has delayed the selection process, which could push back the opening of the additional medical marijuana dispensaries.
The DOH had expected to select the six winning applicants by Nov. 1, but on Friday the department announced that it would not make that deadline. The state did not say when it expects to announce the winners.
"Additional time is needed to complete a full review of these applications," the DOH's release said. "Each of the reviewers must read more than 40,000 pages of material (each application averages 300 pages). The reviewers are working as quickly as possible, and the department will announce the successful applicants as soon as the review is complete."
The longer the state takes to pick the new medical marijuana providers, the longer it will take to get the additional cannabis on the market.
"It is all hands on deck to get this done, and that won't change once the awards are made," said Jeff Brown, assistant commissioner of the medical marijuana program. "We are still on track to expand access consistent with the growth of the patient population."
As the DOH has been evaluating applications, which were due at the end of August, the medical marijuana program has continued to grow. Enrollment now stands at around 33,000, about twice the size it was when Gov. Phil Murphy took office in January.
Even with the Nov. 1 deadline, the new medical marijuana providers wouldn't have been able to have product on the market until the spring of 2019. Now it could be even longer.
To help mitigate the rising demand, the Health Department has sanctioned the existing six medical marijuana providers to open satellite locations. Garden State Dispensary, located in Woodbridge, got local approval this week to open a second location in Union. Other providers are also expanding.
Once selected by the DOH, the six new medical marijuana providers would follow the formula of the existing six. They will be vertically integrated, meaning they grow, process and sell cannabis, and there would be up to two new providers each in the northern, central and southern regions of the state.
The new dispensaries would join operations in Bellmawr, Cranbury, Egg Harbor Township, Montclair, Secaucus and Woodbridge.
Even more medical marijuana providers are likely to come next year. The DOH proposed regulations in June that, among other things, would allow the state to issue separate licenses for growing, processing and retailing.
If those rules are adopted, the state could start accepting applications for the separate licenses shortly after applications for the six new providers. It's unclear how the delay announced Friday might impact these plans.
In an earlier statement, the Health Department said it plans to request applications for separate cultivators and processors in the fall, and for more retailers in the winter of 2019.
All of this is happening while lawmakers are expected to vote soon on both an expanded medical marijuana bill and a recreational marijuana bill. The latter would legalize the possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana, along with setting up a commercial market.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney has said he expects a vote on those bills by Oct. 29, though the most recent versions of either bill have yet to be introduced into the state Legislature.
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