TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A judge on Thursday shifted a lawsuit over New Jersey's medical marijuana program from a trial court to an appeals court in a procedural move that could delay an explanation from the state on why the program has been so slow to get off the ground.
Two would-be pot patients and a doctor sued the state Health Department last April, asking for a court to appoint a monitor to oversee the implementation of the program and for damages for would-be patients who had not been able to get marijuana legally yet.
Though New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in January 2010 in a law that called for dispensaries to be running in six months, none had opened when the suit was filed.
Now, just one of the six nonprofit groups selected by the state to grow and sell cannabis to patients with certain conditions is open. Two of the six groups do not have locations pinned down yet, and the other three are working out the details, but have not yet planted their first crops.
In court filings, the state says it's doing its part to manage the program.
But the Anne Davis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs told Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in a hearing Thursday that she believes the state is not doing all it can.
For instance, she said annual reports on the state of the program were due in 2011 and again last year, and neither has been delivered.
That's important, she said, because under the law that legalized medical pot, patients can petition to have the list of qualifying medical conditions expanded only after two annual reports have been issued.
Michael J. Kennedy, the Deputy Attorney General arguing for the state, said it's a mistake to dwell on the reports when the state has promulgated regulations and created registries for doctors and patients, among other actions.
The governor and lawmakers know what's going on with the fledgling program, he said.
Kennedy told the judge that the plaintiff's lawyers don't have proof to back up their claims, and that is why they were so intent in having the case handled in a trial court rather than an appeals court where judges rely on a record that has already been established.
"They have alleged that there has been some sort of conspiracy," Kennedy said. "There's no evidence of that. What they would like to do is conduct ... essentially a fishing expedition, to decide if their conspiracy theories are in fact true."
"For them to say everyone knows what's going on is a complete farce before this court because no one knows what's going on," Davis said.
She said she hopes that the appeals court will refer portions of the case back to a lower court so she can gather more information, but there's no guarantee that will happen.
Jacobson ruled that the case should be transferred simply because it's appellate courts that handle most suits dealing with action or inaction by state government agencies.
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