Widespread Access to Medical Marijuana Remains Elusive for NJ Patients

Andrew Kitchenman | August 9, 2013 | Health Care, Social
But pending opening of new centers in Woodbridge and Egg Harbor gives advocates reason for optimism

medical marijuana
A year ago today, New Jersey’s first medical marijuana center began registering patients. But the intervening year has been frustrating for advocates of the treatment, as that center has temporarily closed and others have yet to open.

But now there’s reason for optimism, as a center based in Woodbridge began growing marijuana plants this week and another center in Egg Harbor Township began registering patients.

“The ‘grow’ has started,” said Yael Galanter, attorney for Compassionate Care Centers of American Foundation Inc., which will operate the Woodbridge Center.

While the Woodbridge alternative treatment center was to open in September, problems with the building led the operators to push the launch date to November 15.

“We believe that our ATC center in Woodbridge will be the premier center in the state of New Jersey,” Galanter said, noting that the facility has registered 1,200 patients for treatment. “We will be able to service all of the (registered) patients and meet all of their needs.”

That would be a very different experience from that of Greenleaf Compassion Center of Montclair, the state’s first center. While it began registering patients on August 9, 2012, it didn’t begin dispensing medical marijuana until December of that year, serving 127 patients before it temporarily closed in June, citing a lack of marijuana.

“That’s not going to happen with us,” vowed Galanter, noting that the organization has several years of experience operating centers in Colorado.

State officials have said Compassionate Care Foundation, a different organization than the similarly named Woodbridge operator, could begin operating the Egg Harbor center as soon as mid-September.

Dr. Anthony Anzalone, a gynecologist who has been prescribing the substance to many of the registered patients, said he’s very encouraged by the recent state approvals for the Woodbridge and Egg Harbor facilities.

“People are angry” about the lack of operating centers, Anzalone said, adding that he maintains a positive outlook “as long as we keep making progress.”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Hunterdon, Mercer), sponsor of the law permitting marijuana prescriptions for residents with debilitating medical conditions, expressed mixed feelings about the state of the legislation, three and a half years after it was enacted.

“That’s a disappointing thing, that there are no dispensaries open right now,” Gusciora said, adding that he’s hopeful about the Egg Harbor and Woodbridge facilities.

Gusciora said the state could have helped facilitate the process of finding locations for the dispensaries, while the operators selected by the state have also moved more slowly than anticipated.

“There’s blame all around, but I’ll take what I can get,” Gusciora said.

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd pointed out, in the August 1 announcement that the Egg Harbor center could start registering patients, that that center has been approved for a different strain of marijuana plant than had been approved in Montclair. This strain has an especially low level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of the marijuana plant that provides euphoria, and a higher level of cannabidiol (CBD), a component praised for its medicinal potential. This is a combination sought by parents of children with debilitating illnesses.

“Patients will now have more options in terms of locations and types of product, which some patients and caregivers have said they would prefer,” O’Dowd said in the statement.

At least one parent remains skeptical. Jennie Stormes, whose son Jackson has used marijuana to reduce the symptoms of a severe form of epilepsy, said she needs to know more about the strain that Egg Harbor plans to sell.

“At this point, I’m holding my breath,” she said, noting that the type of plant that’s been labeled as high CBD/low THC has had far too little CBD and far too much THC to be appropriate for Jackson.

Galanter said the Woodbridge center would seek permission to grow additional strains if certain patients required them.

Stormes and Gusciora are among the advocates for medical marijuana who are urging Gov. Chris Christie to sign a bill, S-2842, that would reduce the number of doctors that children must have sign off on medical marijuana prescriptions; eliminate limits on the number of strains of the plant that centers can grow; and allow it to be distributed to children in more ways, such as in edible form.

The state has approved six operators, but some have had difficulty finding municipalities that would welcome the centers. However, that hurdle may have been cleared — state health officials have said that all six centers have now found sites, although the remaining three haven’t announced those locations.

Andrei Bogolubov, spokesman for Compassionate Sciences Inc., said yesterday that his group is not prepared to make an announcement. It is approved to operate in the southern region of the state.

Before being cleared to open, the centers’ principal officers and board members must undergo a background investigation by the attorney general’s office and state inspectors must OK both the facilities and the product.

Two of the state’s leading medical marijuana advocacy organizations had different views of the current status of the treatment in New Jersey.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said: “It’s really not a functioning program – it’s definitely not functioning the way it’s supposed to be.”

Wolski maintains that state regulations have strangled the program, both by making it difficult for patients to register and by requiring doctors to register. There are 234 doctors participating in the program, representing roughly 1 percent of the physicians in the state.

Wolski described the approvals for Woodbridge and Egg Harbor as “baby steps.” He accused Christie of being reluctant to make changes.

With 25,000 hospice patients with a prognosis of less than six months to live, the system is failing to serve even a fraction of those eligible, Wolski said.

“Clearly tens of thousands are suffering needlessly,” he said. “Marijuana can help hospice patients in so many different ways.”

But Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the developments in Woodbridge and Egg Harbor are “great news.”

“A lot of the patients we know are excited about this,” Scotti said. She acknowledged that many would have liked the centers to open sooner.

She noted that the Egg Harbor center will have a plaque commemorating Diane Riportella, an Egg Harbor resident and leading advocate for the program, who died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“We believe Diane is looking down on us and she’s thrilled with the progress,” Scotti said, adding that Riportella continued to lobby for the program after she became homebound.

“Diane never gave up and we agree with that attitude and that sentiment,” she said. “You have to celebrate the progress that’s been made, whatever else has gone on in the past. These are two very big steps.”