As one of his first acts upon taking office, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a review of New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, calling it “constrained” and pledging to expand access to more patients.
When announcing the 60-day review, Murphy said the current program has established unnecessary hurdles for patients. Medical marijuana advocates agree.
“It was a program designed to keep people out of it,” said Ken Wolski, CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. “It’s a program that’s not meeting the needs of the patients.”
Several major changes to the state’s medical marijuana program appear likely. Here’s a closer look at the changes advocates most want to see.
More people could qualify for medical marijuana
Since New Jersey’s medical marijuana program launched, only patients with a limited number of conditions were able to enroll. Those conditions are mostly chronic and debilitating, including epilepsy, glaucoma, ALS, severe vomiting from AIDS or cancer treatment, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and other terminal illnesses.
Medical marijuana programs in other states allowed patients suffering from anxiety, arthritis, chronic pain and other conditions access to cannabis. That could soon be the case in New Jersey.
Last year, the state’s Medical Marijuana Review Panel recommended 43 additional conditions to be added to New Jersey’s program. Those conditions include anxiety, chronic pain and migraines, among many others.
While Murphy didn’t mention the expanded list of conditions when he announced the medical marijuana review, those conditions are widely expected to be added.
“Hopefully the new health commissioner will approve the new conditions,” said Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The process was very lengthy and it seems like there’s some support.”
Adding those conditions would almost certainly mean an increase in the 15,000 people enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program.
In a state with nearly 9 million people, there are only five shops in New Jersey where people can buy medical marijuana. Those are in Bellmawr, Cranbury, Egg Harbor, Montclair and Woodbridge. A sixth dispensary, in Secaucus, is expected to open in the coming months.
The current dispensaries are so sparsely sprinkled across the state that some patients face a challenge to get their medicine.
“Some patients have to travel one hour by car to get to some of these dispensaries,” Wolski said. “There are five dispensaries in the state of New Jersey. That’s ridiculous.”
Murphy has indicated that he’d like to see more dispensaries in the state. Most insiders expect to see the existing dispensaries be permitted to open additional locations, while also potentially having a limited number of new businesses join the industry.
“As the industry grows and more patients are coming into the industry with new qualifying conditions such as chronic pain and anxiety, we think there’s going to be a need for additional retail shops,” said Aaron Epstein, general manager of Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge.
Epstein said many of his patients aren’t easily able to get to the dispensary, raising questions of how to get marijuana to those people.
“A lot of the people that we’re dealing with are in hospice, they’re in hospitals, they’re in nursing homes,” he said. “Just getting a ride sometimes can be an arduous process. So we would really like to have the ability to bring this product to them.”
Murphy said he’d like to see home delivery added to the state’s medical marijuana program, as has been done in several other states.
Buying more pot
New Jersey law allows patients to buy a maximum of two ounces of cannabis every month — more than enough for three healthy-sized joints every day. But Wolski said that amount isn’t enough to help some patients.
“For somebody who needs to have a steady blood level — like with seizures or glaucoma — they need it around the clock,” he said.
“Two ounces is not enough when people go to make edibles for a month.”
Patients at Garden State Dispensary currently can only buy dry marijuana — or flower, in industry parlance. One in-state dispensary sells lozenges, but Murphy would like to see more products available in the state’s medicinal marijuana industry, especially edibles.
“They definitely need to have edible products available,” Wolski said. “The advantage to having edibles, rather than a patient making their own product, is you can be very precise in your dosage.”
Epstein said his dispensary is eager to sell products other than flower.
No stigmatized doctors list
One of the biggest barriers to entry in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, advocates say, is the doctors registry. If a doctor wants to be able to recommend cannabis to patients in the state, he or she must register with the state and be placed on an official list of physicians.
There are currently 554 doctors offices on the state’s list, with some doctors who have multiple practices appearing more than once. New Jersey has more than 28,000 doctors, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That discrepancy shows just how few New Jersey doctors register in the medicinal marijuana program.
Advocates say the state should get rid of the registry if it wants to increase access to medical marijuana.
“Any kind of list is going to create a certain stigma that it’s wrong or abnormal,” Epstein said. “We think it’s really holding back a lot of physicians from joining the program because they don’t want to be singled out as a cannabis doctor.”
Lower cost for patients
People who want to get medical marijuana in New Jersey have to make a significant investment before they can get their weed.
They have to pay a $200 registration fee with the state, a few hundred dollars to consult with a registered doctor — and the state requires multiple visits before a doctor can recommend cannabis — and then they have to pay for the product itself. None of that is supplemented by insurance, since marijuana remains illegal on the federal level.
Epstein said costs can come close to $1,000 just to get into the program. Then patients are required to revisit their doctor every three months at the most.
Wolski and other advocates say they hope that as the medical program expands, patient fees will come down.
A timeline for medical marijuana in New Jersey
Murphy’s audit of the medical marijuana program is expected to wrap up in March, but it’s unclear how soon these changes — if they’re recommended — might be implemented.
Wolski said adding to the list of conditions is something that could happen right away. But other expected changes, like opening more dispensaries, would take longer.
“We’re hoping sometime within the next month and half we see these expanded conditions, we see some of these barriers to entry eliminated and we see a lot of progress in moving this industry forward,” Epstein said.