"It's the first time the department will be interacting directly with potential patients and their caregivers," state Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The announcement comes as the state's first legal dispensary, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, N.J., grows its first crop of legal pot for patients. O'Dowd said it's expected to be ready and fully licensed to open sometime in September.
Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for certain patients, even though selling and using the drug remains a violation of federal law.
New Jersey has been perhaps the most cautious of the states to allow it, insisting it's following what officials call a "medical model."
The law was signed in January 2010, but no patients have obtained legal cannabis yet.
Patients with only a handful of conditions - including glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and terminal cancer - qualify. And they must have recommendations from doctors they have been seeing for at least a year and who have registered with the state.
So far, about 150 doctors have signed up.
Under the process, doctors who think patients would benefit from pot will enter those patients into a state computer system and get an identification number that the patients will use to complete the process.
A registration card good for two years will cost $200. Patients on public assistance programs such as Medicare or Medicaid will have to pay just $20.
Once the paperwork is completed, the state will have five days to mail out the patient's card. The patient can then use that to obtain pot at a legal dispensary.
Patients can also show the photo ID card to police if they're found with pot they've bought through the program.
The dispensaries have been slow to get running, partly because of struggles getting local approvals.
Besides Greenleaf, only one other - Compassionate Care Foundation Inc., of Egg Harbor Township - has announced an approved location.
The state selected four other nonprofit groups to grow and sell pot, but all are at least several months from being able to open.
"The opening of a patient registry is a crucial and welcome step. For patients that have been kept in the dark for quite some time, this represents the light at the end of the tunnel," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Trenton and one of the Legislature's main proponents of allowing medicinal marijuana.
Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug policy reform group, was excited that the program would finally begin operations.
"Patients and their families have waited too long for this day," Scotti said. "They have been forced to run the risks associated with obtaining medical marijuana on the illegal market. It is fantastic that they will now have safe and legal access to the medicine they need to relieve their suffering and improve their quality of life."
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