State Gives Patients Chance to Suggest More Maladies for Medical Marijuana

Lilo H. Stainton | July 6, 2016 | Health Care
Advocates worry Christie’s view of this ‘gateway drug’ means there’s no guarantee that list of eligible conditions will be expanded

medical marijuana
Established in 2010, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program has long been considered one of the nation’s strictest for how it regulates the production and sale of the drug, the consideration it gives to doctor-patient relationships, and for the restrictions it places on the conditions considered eligible for treatment.

But on Tuesday the state Department of Health (DOH) announced it will consider expanding the program — one of 24 nationwide — to cover additional patients who suffer from other diseases. (New Jersey currently limits membership in the medical marijuana program to residents with about a dozen chronic or fatal conditions or debilitating side effects, including cancer and the effects of chemotherapy, glaucoma, and irritable bowel syndrome.)

Advocates for an expanded program welcomed what they called the long-overdue news, albeit with guarded optimism. The review process outlined takes months and provides no guarantee for success, they noted, since the department has declined to expand the list on its own – despite having the legal authority to do so – and has denied advocates’ past calls to make the program more inclusive.

In the meantime, several measures have advanced in the state legislature to add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe menstrual cramps to the medical marijuana roster.

“We’re hopeful the process is going to be successful and other conditions will be added,” said Ken Wolski, CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, New Jersey, which plans to seek the addition of a handful of maladies, including PTSD, chronic pain and autism. “But the department didn’t have to wait six and a half years to start accepting petitions.

According to the health department’s latest report on the program, released in March, nearly 6,500 patients were signed up and about 250 more are expected to join each month. Patients must have an ongoing, established relationship with one of the 360 participating physicians (about a quarter of whom are no longer accepting new cases) and have their need for the drug re-certified every few months.

[related]A state-issued medical marijuana card entitles patients to purchase up to two ounces a month at one of five Alternative Treatment Centers, state-licensed facilities that grow, process, and sell the marijuana or other products that contain the essential cannabinoid chemicals. Few other states maintain such tight control. (A sixth facility, planned for Secaucus, is still pending review.) The list of the eligible conditions could change under the process DOH officials outlined Tuesday.

The health department released a three-page petition that members of the public can use to recommend other diseases for medical marijuana treatment. The forms, accepted from August 1 through 31, require petitioners to detail acceptable treatments already available for the disease they want added to the list; they also must provide letters of support or other documentation from medical experts who claim that cannabis will prove beneficial.

“The New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel will evaluate each petition based on scientific and medical research available,” acting Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett said. “This process builds on the medical model, which is the backbone of the state’s program.”

The eight-member panel, a mix of physicians and other health care experts named earlier this year, is required by state law to serve as advisor to the program. The panel met for the first time in May. After the panel makes recommendations on the petitions, the health department will hold a public hearing. The final say will be with the health commissioner, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who called marijuana a “gateway drug” during his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

Wolski, with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, believes the process could take nearly a year. “It almost seems like an exercise in futility,” he said, “but we’re glad they finally started the process.” He will continue to work with members of the Senate and Assembly to advance legislative changes, in case the petition process fails to have an impact.

Roseanne Scotti, state director of the national [|Drug Policy Alliance] – which has advised the state on aspects of the program – largely agreed. “This announcement is long overdue. No one expected when the bill was enacted in 2010 that it would take six long years before patients could apply to add conditions. That said, we are very excited that the process will finally start.”