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New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Panel Recommends Expanding Program

Potential changes, which could ultimately help reduce state’s opioid epidemic, will likely not be in place until later this year

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New Jersey residents suffering from anxiety, migraines, Tourette syndrome, and chronic pain of various origins could eventually get treatment through the state’s medical marijuana program, which advocates have been pushing for years to expand.

The state’s Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel recommended at their meeting Thursday to add five additional conditions to the list of roughly a dozen illnesses and disorders that are now eligible for cannabis treatment under the state’s program, considered one of the nation’s most restrictive. The potential changes, which will involve public hearings before state officials make a final decision later this year, would mark the first expansion of the seven-year-old program.

While many patients have been frustrated with the pace of evolution, advocates welcomed the panel’s decision. Some said it could even help reduce reliance on opiates for pain relief, particularly important in a state like New Jersey that is struggling with epidemic levels of drug addiction.  Many people across the state will be helped by this decision,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Up and running

Approved in 2010 as former Gov. Jon S. Corzine was leaving office, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program took several years to get up and running. A report released in February by the state Department of Health, which oversees the program, indicated that there were roughly 11,000 registered patients, including 4,700 who signed up in the past year. Five operating dispensaries have sold some 6,000 pounds of the drug, which is raised in state-certified operations, since the program launched.

The law currently allows patients with a prescription from a state-approved physician to purchase medical marijuana to treat about a dozen diseases including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Others, like seizure disorders and glaucoma, are eligible when patients who can’t tolerate or benefit from more traditional treatments. Last year Christie signed a law to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list for those who have exhausted other options.

Dozens of patients, family members and advocates for medical marijuana testified before the panel in February, begging the members to add more maladies to the list of eligible conditions. Many described endless cycles of painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and other traditional treatments that failed to relieve their suffering. The advisory group also collected 45 written petitions calling for the program to be expanded.

The eight-member panel organized these recommendations into seven different categories, according to state officials: chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorders, migraine, anxiety, asthma, chronic pain of visceral origin, Tourette syndrome, and chronic fatigue. The members agreed to recommend all conditions for treatment except asthma and chronic fatigue; their decision will be posted on the medical marijuana program website in the coming days.

The panel, a mix of pharmacology experts, physicians and other healthcare experts, will submit written recommendations to the state DOH. That will be followed by a public comment period and a public hearing and, eventually, final recommendations from the panel. An additional round of public comment and hearing is required before the commissioner makes a final decision on the changes, so it is likely any expansion won’t be in place until later this year.

“We are glad to see that the panel took the testimony of experts and the petitions of New Jerseyans seriously in making their recommendation to add chronic pain and other conditions to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana,” Scotti, with the Drug Policy Alliance said.

“In terms of chronic pain, data shows that states with medical marijuana programs that allow access for individuals with chronic pain have reduced dependence on opioids,” she added.

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