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Medical-Marijuana Supporters See Hurdles Mount for Patients

While advocates call for changing rules to ease access to drug, law's sponsor seeks to work with Gov. Christie on making it more effective.

New Jersey doctors have been slow to register to prescribe medical marijuana, one of several hurdles preventing expansion of the state’s program, according to medical marijuana advocates.

Only one of six marijuana alternative treatment centers approved by the state has opened, with several of the others facing problems getting locations approved by local governments.

These and other obstacles were highlighted yesterday by members of the nonprofit Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, who called for a series of new legal and regulatory changes to ease access to the drug.

Coalition members want post-traumatic stress disorder to be added as a condition approved for use of the substance; access to marijuana in a lozenge form for those who can’t or won’t smoke it; and approval of home cultivation of marijuana.

The coalition members said Governor Chris Christie is dragging his feet in enforcing a law that was signed just before he took office.

“Governor Christie, this is a crisis,” said Princeton resident Vanessa Waltz, who has used marijuana to ease pain related to cancer. “You can call me and the other patients across our state seeking relief criminals, but denying patients safe, legal and timely access to medical marijuana as allowed by New Jersey state law, now that’s the real crime.”

While there are 50,000 cancer patients and 36,000 residents with HIV who could potentially benefit from medical marijuana, only about 700 have been approved for it, according to Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Hunterdon and Mercer).

“I don’t think they can wait that much longer to deal with the nausea, the wasting syndrome and other ailments that … medical marijuana has been proven to alleviate,” Gusciora said.

The alternative treatment centers will both grow and dispense medical marijuana, under state monitoring.

While state officials said that a second center is progressing toward opening, an official with the first center, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, said yesterday that the facility will limit any new patients to those in northern New Jersey, according to the Star-Ledger. This leaves residents of the state’s southern and central regions without an outlet.

Gusciora sponsored the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, which became law in January 2010.

“Since its inception, I think the compassion has gone out of it,” Gusciora said.

However, Gusciora struck a more conciliatory tone than the coalition members, saying that access can be improved under current laws and regulations, through leadership by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.

Waltz expressed frustration that prescribing doctors have to register, a step that isn’t required in other states with medical marijuana. Physicians have expressed concern about being listed on a public registry, as well as with the number of patients who have asked whether doctors to go through the time-consuming process of approving them for medical marijuana.

There are 208 doctors currently participating in the program, while 50 others who registered aren’t currently participating, according to state officials.

Another issue is that doctors who register must prove that they have received recent training in addiction medicine.

Waltz lifted several bags filled with prescriptions that have more severe side effects than marijuana.

“There’s morphine in here,” she said. “But doctors need a special addiction medicine course for medical marijuana? That’s absurd.”

State officials said they have worked to make training material available to doctors, including through webinars.

Waltz said other patients have told her the wait for medication can take seven months, but one category of patients eligible for medical marijuana must have a prognosis of less than 12 months to live.

“That math does not add up,” she said.

State Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner defended Christie’s approach, noting that his budget proposal for the fiscal year starting on July 1 doubles the funding for the program, from $823,000 to $1.6 million.

In addition, the state on Tuesday informed Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township that it? it has approved several key board members and the organization’s financial structure, Leusner said. The next step for that center is for it to notify the state when it’s ready for an inspection allowing it to grow marijuana, she said.

A third center – Compassionate Care Center of America in Woodbridge – is far along in the process, Leusner said.

“With the exception of Greenleaf, all ATCs have had a difficult time securing host communities,” Leusner said, adding that the department is working with Greenleaf to improve patient access.

Dr. Joseph C. Jimenez, whose practice Performance Spine & Sports Medicine, is in Lawrence, said the current wait times for patients to receive marijuana are unacceptable, “knowing that it will help their quality of life and improve their symptoms.”

Coalition Executive Director Ken Wolski, a registered nurse, called on Christie and state courts to ensure that the medical marijuana program is consistent with the law. “The reality is that the rules are so difficult, few patients or physicians have been able to register,” said Wolski.

The state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has sued the state, alleging that it’s deliberately delayedthe law’s implementation. Coalition spokesman Jay Lassiter said he hopes a court decision in NORML’s favor later this year will lead to the immediate opening of the six approved alternative treatment centers.

Lassiter said legislators like Gusciora are taking a pragmatic approach in trying to work with Christie’s administration, but coalition members would like to see a more sweeping overhaul of the law, including a new measure allowing home marijuana cultivation.

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