New Jersey’s oft-criticized medical marijuana program has gotten plenty of attention in the past few weeks.
First, Gov. Phil Murphy, who called the program “constrained”, ordered a 60-day review of the program in January, saying he wants to see key changes.
Now, a bill introduced Thursday into the state Assembly aims to address many of the issues supposedly holding back the state’s medical marijuana program.
Reed Gusciora, Democratic assemblyman from Mercer County, introduced the bill, which likely would boost the number of New Jerseyans who could get medical marijuana.
New Jersey currently has five medical marijuana dispensaries and just more than 15,000 patients. Advocates say a state the size of Jersey — nearly 9 million people — should have many more patients.
Ken Wolski, CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said it was “ridiculous” that the state had so few dispensaries.
So, what would the new medical marijuana bill mean for New Jersey?
It would triple the number of dispensaries
Among the biggest concerns about New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is access. Even if a patient gets a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis, they may not live anywhere near a place they can legally buy their medicine.
“Some patients have to travel one hour by car to get to some of these dispensaries,” Wolski said.
The state only has five dispensaries. Those are in Bellmawr, Cranbury, Egg Harbor, Montclair and Woodbridge. A sixth dispensary, in Secaucus, is expected to open in the coming months.
Gusciora’s bill allows 12 dispensaries to join the six that are currently licensed, for a total of 18 dispensaries. The bill divides New Jersey into north, central and south regions and requires six dispensaries in each region.
A common condition would be added to the program
Last October, a panel of doctors recommended that the state expand the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana. Currently the list of conditions comprises severe and mostly terminal illnesses.
The Medical Marijuana Review Panel recommended adding 43 conditions. Gusciora’s bill adds perhaps the most common of those recommended conditions: chronic pain. Should the bill pass, people suffering from that condition would be eligible to treat it with cannabis.
Aaron Epstein, general manager of Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, said he thinks it’s crucial for more conditions to qualify for medical marijuana.
“Those are really important ailments that people have throughout the state and that cannabis has shown in other patients to be a really effective treatment,” he said.
Patients could buy up to 4 ounces
The maximum amount medical marijuana patients can purchase in New Jersey is two ounces per month. Gusciora’s bill would double that amount to four ounces.
Wolski said that patients with certain conditions that require a constant dosage of cannabis, like epilepsy, need more than two ounces per month. Other patients, he said, make their own edibles in bulk and require more than two ounces.
Patients could buy edibles and other products
Medical marijuana patients in Colorado and California have long had access to a variety of products. Cannabis flower, oil and edibles, to name a few. In New Jersey, only one dispensary sells more than flower.
Under Gusciora’s new bill, the cannabis producers would be able to make more products, including edibles and oils.
Marijuana patients could see their personal doctor
To get a medical marijuana recommendation in New Jersey, a patient has to go see a doctor that has registered with the state. Of the roughly 28,000 doctors in New Jersey, only 554 doctors are on the state registry.
This means patients often have to see a doctor they don’t know to obtain a cannabis recommendation. Gusciora’s bill would get rid of the registry and allow all doctors to recommend marijuana, as long as they’re allowed to prescribe other controlled substances.
“These doctors already have DEA licenses to prescribe much more dangerous and volatile drugs than cannabis, so we don’t understand why it’s necessary and mandatory for physicians to be on this registry,” Epstein said.
Timeline for medical expansion
Murphy’s audit of the medical marijuana program is expected to be completed late next month, with recommendations forthcoming. Gusciora’s bill was introduced Thursday, so it would require multiple hearings and votes in the state legislature before it could advance.
Murphy has indicated that he’s motivated to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana program and there are unilateral steps he could take.
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.
But what about recreational?
If Gusciora’s name sounds familiar in the marijuana debate, it’s because he is also expected to introduce a recreational marijuana bill in the near future.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, has already introduced a recreational bill, which would allow the possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana, along with establishing a regulated system of cannabis production and sales.
But, despite Murphy campaigning on legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, his current focus appears set on expanding the state’s medical marijuana program.