Much to the anger of Gov. Chris Christie, Rutgers University Friday declined his request that it be the sole grower of New Jersey's medical marijuana crop.
In a letter to the governor, Rutgers officials maintained the drugs illegal status with the U.S. government would jeopardize as much as $552 million in federal grants, contracts, and loans the school relies on annually.
"It now appears that we have one less option available to us,'' Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, said in reaction to Rutgers' decision. "But as we've said all along, we've been considering other options beyond the Rutgers plan, and we will continue working diligently to implement a high-quality and secure program for growing and distributing medical-use marijuana.''Attempting to ensure that medical marijuana be made available under strict guidelines, Christie had the implementation of the program delayed until Oct. 1.
In a statement, Rutgers confirmed it has the ability to help the Christie administration implement the state‘s new Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act.
"Rutgers has been exploring various ways in which we could play a role in New Jersey medicinal marijuana program, including discussions with inside and outside legal counsel and a review of how other public universities — including Colorado State University — have been involved in medical marijuana in their representative states.
"Unfortunately, the results of our review have shown that there is no way for Rutgers to be involved in this initiative without violating the federal Controlled Substances Act, which we will not do.
"Rutgers has numerous interactions with the federal government and the university routinely is required to make certifications that it is in compliance with federal law, In federal fiscal year 2009 alone, the university received more than $290 million in federal grants and contracts for research and an additional $262 million in grants, loans and work study funding for Rutgers students. We cannot put those programs in jeopardy.‘'
Assembly Deputy Majority Leader Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the original sponsor of the medicinal marijuana legislation, is also angry about Rutgers' decision. He noted the university has 9 research farms, and pharmaceutical and business schools that could have played a role in providing the drug.
"I am disappointed that Rutgers University has stopped short, especially when the school could have been on the cutting edge of the issue," Gusciora said. "Perhaps if they used Seton Hall lawyers they would have reached a more favorable result."
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst tried to become a medical marijuana grower, but was ultimately denied by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Gusciora pointed to what he sees as two important differences between the Amherst scenario and the one occurring with Rutgers.
"UMass requested a growers bid from the DEA in a state that has not legalized medical marijuana to this day,'' the Assemblyman said. "In addition, the waiver was requested in 2002 under the Bush Administration. (Current) U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has already stated the feds will not interfere with dispensaries that operate in states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal uses.
"Its apples and oranges we're talking about,'' Gusciora said. "Legislation was passed allowing an Oct. 1 extension to begin implementation of the medical marijuana law.''
Gusciora noted that the extension created ample time to consider Christie's proposal, which included Rutgers as the state's grower and teaching hospitals as potential dispensaries. He said the farms, a food innovation center, and the pharmaceutical and business schools could have garnered patent rights for any new strains of the plant that were developed.
"In the end, this is a slap in the face of the governor who has been advocating for the state's university in finding innovative ways for the institution to advance academically," Gusciora concluded. "I would have preferred Rutgers announcing they will work with our state's federal delegation and governor to find a way to solve any legal hurdles instead of just walking away from this opportunity."
Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Union), the prime sponsor of the medical marijuana bill in the upper house, said, "It's time to move forward with the growth and distribution of medical marijuana as originally planned. Our law already is the most restrictive in the nation, and contains the necessary safeguards to ensure safe and effective implementation with the involvement of the private sector.
"I am grateful Rutgers was willing to explore this venture, but with the lack of clarity provided by the federal government on this issue, I respect the school's decision not to want to jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding for research, student aid and other critical programs.
"Now it's back to plan ‘A.' '', Scutari said "We should revert back to the process outlined in the law, and get the regulations in place by the October 1 deadline we agreed upon with the administration. This is not only the smart thing to do; it's the humane thing to do. Thousands of sick and dying patients are awaiting the relief that medicinal marijuana will provide. Any further attempt to modify the law could result in additional delays in getting it to them.''