Nominee To Lead New Jersey Health Department Promises Better Medical Marijuana Program

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Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominee to lead New Jersey’s Department of Health spent most of his confirmation hearing Friday answering questions about the state’s medical marijuana program.

Shereef Elnahal told lawmakers that when a 60-day review ordered by the governor is completed, “We’re going to be recommending a lot of changes that will affect patient access to medicinal marijuana.”

“We’ll lower the barriers to physicians being able to administer it and also to the businesses, the alternative treatment centers, that dispense medicinal marijuana,” he said. “We’re going to be reducing and eliminating many of the barriers.”

State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari, D-Union, a proponent of legalizing recreational marijuana, asked Elnahal if that possibility would limit access to medical marijuana.

“I personally have not seen an analysis yet that would tell me one way or another on that issue,” he responded.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, questioned Elnahal about the potential hazards of legalizing recreational marijuana.

“Of course there are risks with the use of marijuana, just as there are for many of the drugs we prescribe that are legal, opioids included,” said Elnahal.

But Elnahal said increased access to medical marijuana could result in diminished opioid use.

“The results from medicinal marijuana are certainly encouraging, and I’m hoping that can be one of the tools that we use to reduce the need for opioid prescription,” he said. “And there’s one study that I’m aware of out of Colorado, since they legalized it in 2014 that showed, at least preliminarily, a 6 percent or so reduction in opiate overuse and death.”