NJ: Medical Marijuana Program Needs Fixes After Christie Sabotage

Photo Credit: Mel Evans

Among Chris Christie’s emotional deficits, the most galling was his bizarre indifference to human suffering, and as proof you only have to revisit how New Jersey’s medical marijuana program stagnated – in every way possible – on his watch.

Throughout his tenure, Christie fought broader access to MMPs, restricted the list of qualifying conditions, resisted dispensary expansion, and, inexcusably allowed children to endure agony because his health department would not approve manufacturing guidelines for edibles.

And then he said these concerns for kids were – wait for it – really just a phony liberal plot to legalize recreational use.

By December of 2013, right around the time his presidential itch kicked in, Christie made this callous proclamation: “I am done expanding the medical marijuana program.” So if you had a toddler with drug-resistant epilepsy or a preteen with autism who got no relief from psychotropics, it was your tough luck.

Thankfully, his successor was only one week into the job when he recognized the need to correct this abject miscarriage of humanity. Phil Murphy’s executive order directed the Department of Health to conduct a 60-day review of our MMP, with an emphasis on how to increase access to it.

Is it necessary? Start with this: New Jersey has 13,200 people with access to the MMP, only five dispensaries, and allows only a dozen conditions to qualify for medical marijuana – and until PTSD was added through legislation reluctantly signed by Christie last year, there had been no additions since the program opened in 2010.

A similar-sized state like Michigan has 270,000 cardholders, hundreds of dispensaries, and a far broader range of maladies that are eligible for cannabis treatment.

That is an absurd disparity, considering there are hundreds of thousands New Jerseyans who suffer needlessly from autism, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette syndrome, migraines, and chronic pain related to skeletal disorders – to name just a few – that still aren’t allowed to obtain medical weed.

But this might be the most vexing number of all: Less than one percent of doctors in our state are willing to write prescriptions for medical cannabis, because “they don’t want their name on a website, and they don’t want to be overloaded with the demand,” as Senate Health Committee chairman Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) explains.

So Vitale is drafting multiple bills to facilitate expansion. One will increase the number and variety of medical professionals (such as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse) who can write prescriptions. Another will allow dispensaries to become for-profit establishments, because their current non-profit status restricts their ability to borrow and expand – and as Vitale sees it, the best solution is for existing programs to open satellite locations rather than increasing the number of licensed dispensaries.

But the most immediate action needed is increasing the number of qualifying conditions. It was last October that the state’s Medicinal Marijuana Review panel studied doctors’ petitions and held two hearings before concluding that 43 more conditions should be eligible for cannabis treatment.

Christie – surprise – tabled it. But the incoming DOH commissioner has until April 23 to act on it.

Experts such as Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance and Ken Wolski of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey also remind us that there is an urgent need to reexamine application as much as access: The regulations must change to allow for adults to use edibles, tinctures, and oils – edibles are currently allowed only for minors, and very limited in availability – and change the amount the patients can receive each month, because in some cases the two-ounce limit is inadequate.

But it’s time for adults to take control of the program. As Murphy put it, it’s time we stopped allowing politics to trump compassion.