Doctors would decide which patients should use marijuana as medicine instead of being limited by a narrow list of eligible diseases set by law, under a sweeping medical marijuana overhaul approved by a state Assembly panel Thursday.
The measure that cleared the Assembly Health Committee would also allow registered patients to buy up to four ounces of cannabis, or twice as much as they are permitted to obtain now.
It would also allow 12 cultivators and 40 dispensaries instead of existing six that are permitted to both grow and sell, according to the bill
The dispensaries and cultivators would be divided evenly in the northern, central and southern regions of the state, including the six who are already licensed to grow and sell.
Many of the changes contained in the bill are under consideration by the Murphy administration, which is winding down a 60-day audit of the state medical marijuana program.
Gov. Phil Murphy is expected within the next week to announce major rule changes to make cannabis more accessible, in response to years-old criticisms the Christie administration had imposed too many barriers to limit participation.
The bill (A3740/A3437) is a mash-up of a measure (A3437) sponsored by Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, and Tim Eustace, D-Bergen, and that of Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, who chairs the health committee. One of the major differences between the two is Conaway’s bill repeals the list of qualifying conditions.
“We are putting patients and physicians in control,” said Conaway, who is a medical doctor. “I’m also hopeful with better access, we will be able to de-escalate (the use of) opioids and reduce risk of unintended addiction and death.”
The state medicinal marijuana program serves 18,220 patients, who rely on five alternative treatment centers that both grow and sell cannabis. A sixth, Harmony Foundation, is expected to open in Secaucus sometime in the spring — seven years after the state approved the dispensary’s application.
Advocates of the program say enrollment has been suppressed in many ways, but largely by not including chronic pain as a qualifying condition. A medical advisory panel last year recommended the Christie administration allow chronic pain, anxiety, and Tourette syndrome, but the health department never approved the expanded list.
The bill also would:
• Abolish the public listing of physicians registered with the program
• Slash the cost of patient registration from $200 every two years to $50, and charge indigent patients $10 instead of $20.
• Reverse the rule limiting the sale of edible cannabis products to minors
• Permit a pediatrician alone to recommend a minor for the program, dismissing a requirement that a psychiatrist also must sign off
• Require doctors to report patients to the state’s prescription monitoring program to track usage.
Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, abstained from voting because the committee had little time to review the revised legislation that was presented minutes before the hearing began.
“For an issue this important, lets do this right,” she said.
Assemblyman Joe Danielson, D-Somerset, voted yes, but with reservations. “There’s an undeniable need for the benefits of this product,” Danielson said.
But said he was troubled that the work that goes in a laboratory making extracts and edibles is not regulated. “Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, there are no standards.”
The bill, which cleared the committee 6-2 with two abstentions, must pass the full Assembly, then repeat the process in the Senate before it gets to the governor’s desk. If Murphy signs it, the law would take effect within 90 days.
Murphy campaigned on a platform to legalize and tax recreational marjuana, but he’s made improving the medicinal program his first priority.