Pain Patients Urge NJ Medicinal Marijuana Panel to Include Them in Program

People suffering from chronic pain and debilitating illnesses say panel has been unresponsive to their needs

Ricardo Rivera, holding up pictures of his sister, Matilda Candelaria, who died in 2015, after suffering from opiate addiction, and Jim Miller, co-founder of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey
Patients suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, Tourette’s, and drug addiction — or family members serving as their caregivers — made a passionate plea to state regulators to expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program to cover their conditions, a move that would mark the first major change to the program since it was created seven years ago.

On Wednesday, the Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel heard testimony from some two dozen individuals, many who submitted petitions last summer urging the group to add to the list of conditions now eligible for treatment with medical cannabis. Several criticized the state’s slow progress in implementing — or amending — the 2010 law, considered one of the nation’s most strict; it took nearly three years for the first dispensary to open, in Montclair.

The hearing marked the second public meeting for the eight-member panel charged with implementing the law, and it coincided with the Department of Health’s release of an annual report on the medical marijuana program, which showed interest in a program that continues to grow.

Several thousand patients signed up in 2016

There are now roughly 11,000 registered patients who actively use the program — including some 4,700 who signed up in 2016 alone — and the five dispensaries now operating have sold more than 6,000 pounds of pot since the first one opened its doors four years ago, according to the report.

But the state program must do more to help those suffering from chronic pain, opiate addiction, autism, Tourette’s and other conditions that have been shown to benefit from cannabis treatment, petitioners told the panel. Many — like Victoria Cuoco, a computer engineer from Lawrenceville — described how they had tried endless combinations of painkillers, anti-anxiety meds, and other treatments to ease their suffering, without finding relief.

“Medical marijuana is a tool I can use in my toolkit – and I have very few tools available,” Cuoco said. “I had a great career. Now I’m disabled.”

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The law signed by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine covered about a dozen conditions, including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Others, like seizure disorders and glaucoma, were permitted for patients who couldn’t tolerate or benefit from more traditional treatments. Last year Gov. Chris Christie signed a law to add Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to the list for those who have exhausted other options.

$200 registration fee can be lowered for financial reasons

Patients with a condition covered by the law must register in the program; this involves a $200 fee, but it is reduced to $20 for financial reasons for nearly half the applicants, according to the report. They can then receive a prescription from one of the nearly 400 doctors participating in the program and visit one of the five dispensaries now operating — where the plants are raised and harvested onsite — and choose from one of the 70 strains of state-approved cannabis. Patients pay $120 for a quarter-ounce of the plant.

Many petitioners insisted New Jersey’s program remains far too restrictive; there was no testimony presented Wednesday against expanding the program. According to testimony submitted by the Drug Policy Alliance, 23 out of the 25 states with medical marijuana laws include chronic pain or common diagnoses associated with the condition; roughly one-third of all adults suffer from chronic pain.

Marco Esquandlas, of Woodbury, experienced the difference firsthand when he was relocated to Colorado for two years through his job. The permissive program there allowed him to legally purchase pot to treat the chronic pain he suffers from sciatica and numbness. Now Esquandlas, born and raised in the Garden State, hopes to get the same relief here at home.

“My access to marijuana has to be done in secret, in hiding” here in New Jersey, he said. “I should be able to live without fear of incarceration just for wanting to have a better life.”

Manahawkin’s Hailey Neluna, 22, isn’t waiting for the state to act. Cannabis is the only thing she’s found to relieve the agony associated with the systemic Lupus she was diagnosed with two years ago, so she and her boyfriend are moving to Colorado.

Reduces dependence on opioids

Dr. Steven Jenison, who served as the first director of New Mexico’s medical marijuana panel and testified for the Drug Policy Alliance, said there is another benefit of adding chronic pain to the list of accepted treatments: reduced dependence on opioids. New Mexico’s law — adopted in 2007 and implemented in 2008 — accepted chronic pain patients starting in 2009 and doctors have reported success in using marijuana to reduce their discomfort.

“The prescription of opioids has gone down significantly as result,” said Jenison, who also serves as an EMT in a state that has the highest rate of heroin overdose deaths nationwide.

Access to medical marijuana might have even saved the life of Matilda Candelaria, who died in August 2015 at the age of 32 from opiate addiction, according to her brother Ricardo Rivera. Pot would have eased the withdrawal symptoms that kept Candelaria tied to heroin use, which she turned to when prescription drugs failed to cure the pain she suffered from surgery she had at age 12 to address a birth defect.

Several petitioners made a plea for the panel to include Tourette’s, which they said can be effectively treated with marijuana or cannabis oils extracted from the plant. Suzanne O’Mullan said the treatment has been a lifesaver for her 23-year-old son Danny, who struggles with significant autism, anxiety, pain, and other symptoms related to the brain damage he suffered after taking various prescription drugs. After trying cannabis in January, he has never been happier or healthier, she said.

The O’Mullans, who live in Pennsylvania, wouldn’t even benefit from New Jersey’s law; they’re waiting for the Keystone State program to take effect in November. But if patients here can see improvement, it was worth the trip, Suzanne O’Mullan said.

‘And I could go to jail for this’

“It’s like a miracle drug,” she said, describing how she purchased the medicine illegally and — with the help of the Internet — distilled it into a tea for Danny to drink. “And I could go to jail for this,” O’Mullan added.

The Medicinal Marijuana Panel will continue to accept comments until March 8, according to the DOH, and will set a date after that to vote on the petitions submitted. Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, urged the panel to move more swiftly than it has in addressing these requests — especially in approving chronic pain, which was the subject of 40 of the 45 petitions.

“Believe what the patients tell you and if you need any other evidence go back to the testimony from seven years ago,” when the DOH held public hearings during the rulemaking phase, added Jim Miller, co-founder of the medical marijuana coalition.

Since then, “lives have been lost,” Miller said. According to the DOH report, nearly 1,500 patients in the program have died since its inception.

Some patients, like Illyiad Smith, who suffers from PTSD and chronic pain, may already qualify, but have been unable to get access to the program. Smith said he has been trying for three years to get information from state officials about the program. “I came here to find out what I can do to get what I need,” he said.

(After Smith spoke, Sue Carson, the program’s first director, gave him her business card and urged him to call her directly. A customer service line established in 2012 has screened nearly 47,500 requests since them, the DOH said.)

Like Smith, other patients said the negative image some have of marijuana still gets in the way of quality treatment. “When you say cannabis, the first thing that pops into people’s heads is Cheech and Chong,” said Leo Bridgewater, of Trenton, an Army vet who has been active in the push to expand the program. “We’re still fighting stigma here.”