Rutgers University could become a major marijuana grower in a plan that's picking up momentum in New Jersey's Legislature — even though it's not a role the university is embracing.
A key state senator who was previously wary of the idea said Wednesday he now supports the concept and is working with Gov. Chris Christie's administration to modify a law to put it in place.
"This is not a bad way to go to get it moving quickly," said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Linden, who is the main sponsor of the state's current medical marijuana law. He said he has one major caveat: He would not want the university's agricultural experiment station to have a permanent monopoly in growing legal medical cannabis.
He said there could soon be a deal on the plan that would allow the administration to work on implementing the unprecedented system even before lawmakers vote on it. He said a vote could come in September.
Meanwhile, Robert Goodman, dean of the agriculture experiment station, said his organization does not want to become a producer of marijuana — or any other crop.
While the station develops crops, it sells only tomato seeds — and on a small scale. But it frequently licenses its breeds to be produced by commercial growers.
"To become the producer of the crop, that would be a completely new role for us," Goodman said. "In any crop, we would have reservations."
So far, no one has formally asked the station to take on the role, he said — even though lawmakers are now backing the concept.
In January, lawmakers approved making the Garden State the 14th in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. Under the law, nonprofit alternative treatment centers would grow and distribute the pot in limited quantities to registered patients who have specific conditions such as glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and AIDS. In some ways, it's the most restrictive law of its kind in the nation.
Regulations were to be in place by October. But lawmakers granted Christie, a first-year Republican who supports the idea of medical marijuana, an extra three months to iron out the regulatory details on cultivation and distribution.
Lawmakers say the governor is interested in taking two steps that no other states have made: Having the state university involved in growing the supply and having state's teaching hospitals distribute it. Teaching hospitals have been pushing the plan.
They say the advantages of this approach would be stricter regulation to keep pot from falling into the wrong hands and a research component to get a better grasp on whether the otherwise illegal drug has meaningful medical benefits.
But detractors say using the university and hospitals would bring complications. It could delay getting suffering patients the relief they need as lawmakers reopen discussions about how the program would work.
Having buds from a single source could mean poor quality and too few varieties, detractors say.
And they say the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law creates headaches that public institutions may not want to deal with.
"They have to ignore the federal government's law and they have to take the risk that the federal government will enforce that law on their property, with their employees," said Chris Goldstein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey.
Goldstein says employees could be at risk of arrest and hospitals and the university could lose federal funding.
But the federal government wouldn't necessarily crack down, said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton, who is his chamber's main sponsor of medical marijuana legislation. Rutgers and the hospitals could be protected by a pledge from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder not to break up medical marijuana operations that are authorized by state governments, he said.
Scutari said it may work to have Rutgers be the initial grower for the state, but he wants nonprofits to have a role eventually.
Any changes to the law would be greeted with protests from medical marijuana activists who worked for years to get the state's current law adopted.