TRENTON — The director of New Jersey’s medical marijuana program — who was hired with fanfare 3-1/2 years ago to manage what was widely criticized as slow and disorganized effort — has quietly resigned, the state Health Department confirmed Thursday.
A retired lieutenant and 26-year-veteran of the State Police, John O’Brien left April 4, health department spokeswoman Donna Leusner confirmed. “He and his family are relocating,” Leusner said in an email.
O’Brien’s second-in-command, James Baracia, also a State Police veteran, is the new acting director, she said. Baracia, an employee for 2-1/2 years, developed the program’s inspection and monitoring requirements and was in charge of monitoring the three dispensaries, according to Leusner’s email.
O’Brien presided over a period of intense scrutiny and verbal attacks on the fledgling program from patients, their advocate — and at times the dispensary owners who expressed frustration the cumbersome law and rules. A physician and patient unsuccessfully sued the health department for purposely dragging out the 2010 law’s implementation.
David Knowlton, co-owner and board chairman of Compassionate Care Foundation alternative treatment center in Egg Harbor, called O’Brien “compassionate and incredibly fair.”
“He completely understood the challenges we were facing in this messed-up situation,” said Knowlton, a vocal critic of the federal government’s refusal to consider taking marijuana off the list of the most dangerous and addictive controlled dangerous substances. “He never compromised himself as a regulator but he was compassionate. He tried to work with you.”
In a statement, Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd listed O’Brien’s and the program’s accomplishments, which include the development of testing protocols for mold, pesticides and potency of the cannabis product, the creation of a customer service unit that fielded 25,000 calls and emails last year, and recent release of manufacturing standards for edible products.
O’Dowd also highlighted the opening of three dispensaries with a fourth preparing to open in the summer. Two other dispensary operations, however, are still not open four years after the health department announced they would be among the six sanctioned cultivators and sellers in New Jersey.
“John was a transformational leader for the Medicinal Marijuana Program,” according to O’Dowd’s statement. “When he began, we had words on paper. He took that paper and built a strong program with integrity that serves 4,000 patients and caregivers and has the capacity to serve more as the program grows. He was an extraordinary advocate for patients and worked with law enforcement to instill …Read More
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