Explainer: How New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Law Works

Andrew Kitchenman | October 14, 2014 | Explainer, Health Care
Governor opposed to medicinal-pot program has now implemented it, but critics see it as country’s most restrictive

medical marijuana

What it is: The state’s medical marijuana program allows New Jerseyans with one of 11 conditions to receive marijuana with the approval of a doctor registered with the program. The doctor can approve up to two ounces of pot per month.

Conditions covered: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; multiple sclerosis; terminal cancer; muscular dystrophy; inflammatory bowel syndrome; and all patients whose doctors have said they have less than 12 months to live. Patients with the following conditions who are resistant or intolerant to conventional therapy can also participate: seizure disorder, including epilepsy; intractable skeletal muscular spasticity; and glaucoma. Patients with HIV/AIDS or cancer can participate if chronic pain or severe nausea or wasting result from their conditions or their treatment.

How the law was enacted: The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was first introduced by Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Middlesex, Somerset, and Union) in January 2005 and was debated for five years before being enacted and signed into law by Gov. Jon S. Corzine in the closing days of his term in January 2010.

The final law was different than the original bill, which would have allowed a patient or the patient’s caregiver to possess up to six marijuana plants.

Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed the bill as he was running for governor in 2009, was put in the position of implementing it as he entered office. He’s contrasted New Jersey’s deliberate approach with the less restrictive approaches of Colorado, which has legalized the drug, and California, where doctors prescribe it for a wider range of conditions.

Why it’s unique: New Jersey’s law mandated at least six alternative treatment centers, which are required to both grow and dispense marijuana. Other states have many more dispensaries.

In addition, the Department of Health regulations required that the doctors who register with the program be listed in a public registry. Supporters of the program have said that many doctors are uncomfortable with being listed, expressing concern that they would attract people who aren’t legitimately in need of marijuana.

Long delays: While the law mandated at least six centers, the state is still far from that goal nearly four years after the law was enacted. It took more time for state officials to write the regulations for the program than the law specified. While the state selected six organizations to operate the centers, these organizations have struggled to find locations, with many municipalities resistant to hosting them.

Only three have opened: Greenleaf Compassion Center of Montclair; Garden State Dispensary of Woodbridge; and Compassionate Care Foundation Inc. of Egg Harbor Township. A fourth, Compassionate Sciences Inc., has found a location in Bellmawr, while Foundation Harmony and Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center haven’t announced locations.

Lack of interest: Unlike states with fewer restrictions, New Jerseyans have largely stayed away from the program. The number of registered patients has grown to more than 2,000, far fewer than estimated while the bill was being debated.

Ongoing debate: Supporters of the program would like to see the restrictions eased, including allowing more organizations to open centers and ending the public listing of physicians. Some have also called for allowing patients to grow a small number of plants and for pharmacies to dispense marijuana.

Christie agreed to a new law that allowed children with qualifying conditions to receive medical marijuana, including in edible forms. But he has resisted further loosening of the program and has opposed a measure that would allow residents to import the drug from another state and vetoed a bill that would specify that patients wouldn’t be disqualified from receiving organ transplants if they use medical marijuana

Moving beyond medical? While debate of the medical program is ongoing, Scutari has moved on to a broader approach: legalizing marijuana. Scutari has said that the federal prohibition on marijuana has failed like the prohibition of alcohol did from 1920 to 1933. He said the state could benefit from taxing legal pot, much like Colorado has this year.

Scutari has acknowledged that legalization is highly unlikely as long as Christie is governor, but is hopeful that it will ultimately be implemented in the state.