Medical Marijuana Advocates Urge Overhaul of Law, Regulations

Andrew Kitchenman | February 21, 2014 | Health Care
State reports progress, but legal pot dispensaries express frustration with limits

Michael Weisser, chief operating officer of the Garden State Dispensary, an alternative care center (ACT) in Woodbridge.
More New Jersey residents than ever before have access to medical marijuana, but advocates for the treatment assert that problems with restrictive regulations — as well as with the law itself — are limiting the program’s reach and its usefulness.

One of those advocates is Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana. Speaking at an Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee meeting yesterday, Wolski argued that the program fails “to meet the needs of the vast majority” of patients in the state.

Wolski said that state restrictions — including those that limit the amount of the active ingredients allowed in the plants – have resulted in low-quality marijuana reaching a limited number of people.

“We believe that the rules are not consistent with the intent of the legislation and only prevent the vast majority of patients from gaining safe and legal access,” Wolski said.

Michael Weisser, chief operating officer of the Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, laid out a multipronged agenda for increasing access to the program, indicating that New Jersey’s rules are the most restrictive of any state that has legalized medical marijuana. He spoke on behalf of all of the state’s alternative treatment centers (ACTs), which grow and dispense marijuana.

According to Weisser, chronic pain should be added to list of approved illnesses that qualify a patient for medical marijuana, and doctors should no longer be required to register in a publicly available database to participate in the program.

The alternative treatment centers also want adults to be able to consume edible marijuana, which the state recently permitted children to do.

“Quite frankly, we have more product than we can sell,” Weisser said. “People (are) just not getting on this program,” due to the various restrictions.

The alternative treatment center operators’ critique of the state’s medical marijuana program encompassed other issues.

For one thing, they want the state to reduce its annual fee for participants from $200 to $25. For another, they want patients to have more time to recertify for the program. They currently have as little as 30 days; Weisser wants it extended to a year.

The ATC operators also are very much concerned with access.

For instance, they want hospice patient to receive marijuana directly from an ATC or through a nurse and allow nursing home nurses and home health aides to pick up the product. Finally, they want ATCs to dispense the product to hospitals to provide to registered patients — if the hospitals are willing.

Originally opened in 2013 as Compassion Care Centers of America, Garden State Dispensary is one of New Jersey’s three alternative treatment centers. The two others are Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, which opened in 2012, and Compassionate Care Foundation Inc. of Egg Harbor Township, which opened in 2013.

The three ATCs have dispensed more than 132 pounds of marijuana to patients, according to state officials. There are more than 1,700 patients registered with the program and nearly 80 percent of them have received marijuana. There are 250 participating doctors.

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd submitted testimony to the Oversight Committee yesterday about the program’s progress.

In a statement read by department legislative service director Victoria Brogan, O’Dowd said that a fourth ATC, Breakwater, is working on building out its warehouse. She also said that state labs have approved nine strains of the plant, while 20 more strains are being grown.

“With the capacity of the current dispensaries and more scheduled to come online in the future, the department is committed to an effective, safe, and secure program,” Brogan said. The Department of Health is finalizing two reports that will provide details on the most common medical conditions of patients and the percentage of patients served by each center.

State officials noted that a large portion of all patients qualify for a reduced fee of $20, which covers two years, instead of the annual fee of $200. That’s because they have demonstrated financial need through participation in government safety-net programs.

Evan Nison, executive director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML NJ), said his organization is contacted on a “weekly basis” by registered patients who have been arrested for marijuana. He said local police should be better trained about the law, adding that the arrests are discouraging other patients from registering.

Gov. Chris Christie has said that he is opposed to further steps to increase access to the program, saying that the ultimate goal of proponents for increased access is to legalize marijuana.