Mike, Janet and Gianna Honig stood with newly inaugurated Gov. Phil Murphy in Trenton as he announced one of his first acts as governor in January 2018: a 60-day review of the New Jersey’s strained medical marijuana program.
But missing, for the first time, was the Howell family’s fourth member: Jake. The 7-year-old boy had died after a years-long battle with Ewing sarcoma just two days before.
The day marked the first of many times the family would speak up for Jake, who found relief from cannabis oil during his last few months. They would tell a story patients in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program knew too well: how high prices, monthly dispensary limits and stigma can interrupt someone’s access to cannabis.
And their little boy’s name would become widely known a year and a half later when Murphy signed an expansion of the medical marijuana program into law: The Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act.
“I said, ‘This is going to be a lot,” Mike Honig, 38, remembered of that January day, wondering if they should stay home and grieve privately. It was his daughter, he remembered, who said, “You have to go, so other families don’t have to go through what Jake went through.”
Heeding the advice of their 6-year-old, the family scrambled to attend, adding the press conference to the chaos and blur of planning a wake.
They would go on to testify before lawmakers and ultimately influence the expansive medical marijuana reform enacted in July of 2019, which served to slowly phase out sales tax on medical cannabis, increase monthly limits, limit visits to the doctor to receive authorization to use and enable home delivery of cannabis.
“Every time a new part of that bill is implemented, it sparks a conversation,” Mike Honig said.
The family’s life forever changed in 2012, when doctors found the first tumor in Jake, then just 2 years old. He underwent a seven-hour surgery to remove the kiwi-sized mass and awoke asking for pancakes and juice. His will, and cheery demeanor, earned him the nickname Jake “The Tank.”
Jake would undergo 14 rounds of chemotherapy and another 28 of radiation. A year later, doctors deemed him cancer-free.
But by 2017, the family heard the possible bad news, which had lingered during Jake’s healthier years: the tumor was back.
That meant more surgeries, more invasive treatments. Jake’s parents also began researching cannabis, though their findings were limited. They talked to patients and doctors in New Jersey, and even in California, and decided to apply for a card for Jake.
Months passed, and the condition worsened, the cancer moving to take over Jake’s spine. Without other options, Mike and Janet Honig took him home for hospice care with a list of medications: “a gallon of morphine,” enough oxycontin “to supply a town,” Mike Honig said.
But they also tried cannabis, making their own oils — a treatment that ran them around $625 an ounce.
With cannabis, Mike Honig said, Jake’s mind cleared and his mood boosted. He could enjoy movies and the holidays with his family, ditching other medications that left him nauseous and forgetful, or even made him hallucinate.
But under state law, Jake could only have 2 ounces of marijuana per month. As he grew sicker, that supply would last about half a month, forcing his parents back to the painkillers that robbed them of the dwindling precious time with their son.
Mike Honig, the manager of sales operations at a pharmaceutical company, wondered why he could secure heavy medications for his sick son so easily, but had no recourse to get more marijuana?
The family’s work did away with the arbitrary cap, lifting cannabis limits for terminally ill patients and raising the monthly limit to 3 ounces for others.
“I did get to know Mike and Janet and Gianna, who are amazing people,” said Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-Freehold, who sponsored Jake Honig’s Law. “There were so many things that they really did open my eyes to.”
Downey said her niece who also lives in Howell told her about the Honigs, about how Jake ran out of medicine each month, and how his parents wanted to see the caps lifted. She had heard, she said, that patients in the limited program had faced struggles with access, but learned how dire the restrictions were from Jake’s story.
“I’m always impressed when people, especially parents of young kids, are able to deal with their own pain, and move ahead and try to make it so they felt it’s not all for nothing,” she said.
Mike Honig said the family still talks about Jake all the time, like he hasn’t left them. And during the two-and-a-half years since his death, his legacy has kept them busy.
The Honigs have started a charitable foundation in Jake’s memory, which raises awareness and funds for research around childhood cancer, and for families in the fight. But they also continue to speak publicly for medical marijuana, battling stigma that persists.
It’s that topic, Mike Honig said, that always draws questions and intrigue.
“The stigma is still alive,” he said. “Even though it is legal for minors, under medical circumstances, not everyone is willing to come forth with the fact that their child is on it.”