| Asbury Park Press
TRENTON – Plans for a massive expansion of the New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program got a jump start Thursday after an appeals court lifted a 2019 order that halted the state from issuing any more licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries.
The Superior Court Appellate Division decision rejected the claims of seven medical marijuana dispensary applicants whose plans were disqualified by the state Department of Health in 2019 on technical grounds.
A Department of Health spokeswoman declined to comment on the decision.
“Hopefully this decision will allow everyone to move on and start getting down to the business of providing patients the medicine they need,” said Edmund DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. “Far too much time, energy and money has been expended on this entire licensing process with too few results to show for it.”
Q&A: What you need to know about the NJ Medical Marijuana Program
One applicant saw its rejection reversed: ZY Labs, whose plans to open a dispensary in Hillside was given new life.
The DOH had rejected the ZY Labs application because it did not include written approval of the project by officials in Hillside, where the proposed medical marijuana dispensary would be built.
But ZY Labs did include letters from three prominent community members supporting the project. In its decision, the appellate court ruled that those letters satisfied the DOH’s requirement for “approval of the community or governing body of the municipality.”
“(The DOH’s) plain language allows for an applicant’s submission of documentation of the support of members of the community or the municipality’s governing body,” the decision reads. “This interpretation not only attributes to the regulation its ordinary, common meaning but also ensures that no part of the regulation is rendered superfluous or ineffective.”
The court stopped short of simply awarding ZY Labs a medical marijuana license, instead kicking the application back to the DOH for review.
The appellate decision Thursday was the court’s second medical marijuana dispensary decision in three months. In December, it ruled that a group of applicants rejected in 2018 were denied licenses on arbitrary and capricious grounds.
Like ZY Labs, their applications were sent back to the DOH for review.
“We are disappointed in the decision and disagree with its findings, especially as it prevents a merit-based review to ensure the most qualified applicants serve the state’s patient population,” said Joshua Bauchner, an attorney who represented five of the seven plaintiffs. “That said, it is time to move on and we are hopeful the DOH will proceed without further delay.”
Monmouth County: Medical marijuana dispensary planned in Neptune
A December 2019 court order halted the department from reviewing the 150 qualified applications it received, pending action on the complaint brought by the losing applicants.
DOH officials planned to award 24 dispensary licenses from that pool before the lawsuit was filed and the resulting court order was signed.
That round of licensing was part of a massive expansion of the medical marijuana program designed to increase supply and lower prices for patients while easing the eventual transition into recreational, legal marijuana.
Currently, only 13 dispensaries are open in the state — from 10 operators — to service the 100,000 registered medical marijuana patients.
“This is a great decision for the state program but moreover for patients because it will open up the opportunity to get more supply,” said Bill Caruso, a marijuana legalization advocate and attorney, who represents dispensary operator Columbia Care in New Jersey.
“It’s good to see that we’re setting legal precedent for the future of the program and the expansion into adult use, and I applaud the state for taking this case to the mat so we can avoid costly legal delays.”
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and basically whatever else is going on at any given moment. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.