NJ: Medical Marijuana Patients Struggle With Costs

Photo Credit: Jonathan Wiggs

Donnah Marvel’s life has been turned upside-down more than once.

After losing her son, Nickolas, 18, who was struck and killed by a car while walking home with friends along Route 9 in Linwood in 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent surgery and chemotherapy and had a double hip replacement due to disease in her bones.

Through it all, she’s developed anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain in her hips. Her participation in the state’s medical marijuana program is one of the few things she said has made a huge difference in her quality of life, but some months, she can barely afford it.

Gov. Phil Murphy and state Department of Health officials announced sweeping changes and upgrades to the program last month that would expand access to it. While advocates cheered for those improvements, a glaring issue remains: Those who may benefit the most may not be able to shoulder the costs.

“It’s extremely expensive, especially if you’re living on Social Security and disability benefits,” said Marvel, 58, of Somers Point. “Some months I can buy a quarter-ounce (of medical marijuana) and others two ounces. It all depends on my finances at the time.”

To address one part of the cost problem, Health Department officials lowered the program’s registration fee from $200 to $100. Seniors, veterans and others like Marvel who qualify for government assistance programs would pay $20.

That reduction helps, supporters said, but other costs associated with the program remain high.

The price of one ounce of medicinal marijuana dispensed at any of the state’s five operating alternative treatment centers, or dispensaries — including Compassionate Care in Egg Harbor Township — ranges from $425 to $520. On top of that, participants must pay the registration fee every two years and pay to visit a program-approved doctor for continued eligibility.

Marvel said it costs anywhere from $300 to $600 per month for her to get the amount and type of strains she needs to help her get a full night’s sleep every day.

“It can be excruciating pain,” she said. “I can’t sit or stand too long, and there are times I can’t get comfortable. If I smoke at night, I can sleep through the night without pain. Before, I would catnap for 40 minutes at a time and the pain would wake me up. It was horrible.”

Except in very few cases, medical marijuana is not covered by health insurance. Since it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a medicine, most private and federal insurance programs will not cover it.

Marijuana also remains classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning it has been deemed as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other drugs in this category include heroin and LSD. Opioids are among Schedule II drugs, which can be prescribed.

Bob Kane, medical marijuana advocate and educator at Alternative Medicine in Linwood, said he and others are preparing testimony this month as legislators discuss whether the state should de-schedule marijuana.

“I think if it gets rescheduled, it could qualify as a medicine that can be covered,” he said. “If the states go ahead and do it, the federal government may follow suit one day. Insurance can’t cover it, but it’s starting to get more acceptance.”

To enter the program, patients have to find a program-approved doctor and establish a relationship, meaning they may need to go in multiple times before a doctor makes the medical marijuana recommendation. It also means paying for those visits each time.

Amy Krier-Howley, 40, of Absecon, looked into the program to treat a chronic seizure disorder after she tried other therapies and treatments that weren’t as effective. Since using medical marijuana, she said her seizures have occurred with less frequency and less severity.

But to get to that point, she had to pay a doctor $450 for the program recommendation, and she continues to pay an appointment fee when she, like all other patients, is required to check in with program doctors about every three months.

“Honestly, at this point, I think some of them are just in it to make money,” she said. “And then, I still have to pay my co-pays to see my other insured-covered doctor. I can do it, but a lot of people out there are working minimum-wage jobs who have qualifying conditions and are buying cannabis on the black market because they can’t afford it otherwise.”

Both Marvel and Krier-Howley said they hope the program becomes more affordable one day as medical marijuana becomes less taboo and more people become interested in treatment.

“There are some months that I know, like back-to-school time, I’m not going to get the full amount I need, because my kids’ stuff comes first,” Krier-Howley said. “They’ll always come first, but you shouldn’t have to pick.”