Murphy Cautiously Expanding New Jersey’s Growing Medical Marijuana Program

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Gov. Phil Murphy would like to legalize marijuana use for pleasure, so his recent executive order to study ways to expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program was no surprise.

The governor said he wanted to remove regulations and “unwarranted obstructions” that limit access by patients to marijuana that would benefit them.

Good. Last year we supported expanding the medical marijuana program, with the cautious approach appropriate for drug use and its history of social harm.

Democrat Murphy used the occasion to attack Republican predecessor Chris Christie for stifling the program, which opened in 2010. Christie resisted increasing the state’s five marijuana dispensaries (one of the first was Compassionate Care in Egg Harbor Township) and his health department wouldn’t approve manufacturing guidelines for edible marijuana.

There are about 15,000 medical marijuana enrollees in New Jersey, compared to 40,000 in New York State, which has more than twice the population of its neighbor. Pennsylvania’s program just started operations last month. The N.J. program already was increasing rapidly under Christie, with half of enrollees signing up in 2016 and 2017.

A process likely to add new conditions eligible for medical marijuana began last year with a report by the state’s Medicinal Marijuana Review panel. After considering seven new areas of treatment suggested by patients, advocates and the public, it recommended approving the drug for chronic muscle-skeletal pain, migraine, anxiety, chronic visceral pain and Tourette syndrome. Only asthma and chronic fatigue were rejected.

We thought Murphy might find a way to quickly authorize medical marijuana for those recommended conditions, especially since his plan to legalize and tax recreational marijuana has stalled. But apparently he, too, must wait for the deliberate process of a public comment period and hearing, a final recommendation by the panel, then another round of comments and a hearing, until finally the state health commissioner will decide on adding eligible conditions, presumably by April.

Bills already in the Legislature could advance Murphy’s goal. One would allow nurse practitioners, not just doctors, to prescribe marijuana. Another would allow the nonprofit dispensaries to become for-profit, to encourage them to open satellite locations.

The more people with marijuana-treatable conditions who are eligible to receive it the better. Continuing to expand this program cautiously will ensure its benefits are realized without causing unintended harm.