NJ Takes Steps to Expand Medical Marijuana Program

New dispensary, more eligible conditions expected later this year

medical marijuana
For the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from chronic pain, migraine headaches, and anxiety, another opportunity for relief could come later this year.

New Jersey has taken steps recently to welcome more patients into its Medicinal Marijuana Program by recommending that dozens of additional conditions qualify for legal cannabis treatment. Officials have also given the go-ahead to the state’s sixth dispensary, in the Meadowlands region of Hudson County, which is slated to open in the coming months.

The state’s Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel outlined its recommendations in a July letter to the state Department of Health, urging Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett to allow those in pain as a result of various spinal injuries or back strain, neuropathy, arthritis, autoimmune disorders like Lupus, and more to qualify for the program. Public comment on the recommendation will be accepted until late September, and there will be several public hearings before Bennett is required to make a decision within the next six months.

The list was informed by passionate testimony given by patients, family members, and marijuana advocates at the panel’s meeting in February, who begged the group to expand the program beyond the dozen chronic or fatal illnesses it has covered since 2010, when former Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the law establishing the system just before leaving office. Critics have complained that New Jersey’s program, long considered one of the most restrictive in the nation, was slow to get up and running under Gov. Chris Christie and has not evolved in the years since.

Burning pain

“Sometimes it feels as if someone has taken a can of gasoline and poured it on my body and lit it on fire. It is that intense,” explained Keesha Sanchez, a 41-year-old Spotswood wife and mother of three who developed a pain condition called Reflex sympathetic dystrophy — one of the maladies the panel has since recommended to be included in the state program.

“There are days you don’t go out because you become this horrible, angry person who doesn’t want to be seen,” Sanchez said at the February meeting, describing how her husband sometimes had to carry her to bed because of the pain. She begged the panel to include RSD on the list of approved conditions, noting, “I’m not the only patient who would benefit from this.”

The patient pleas may have made an impact in recent years. In 2016, Christie signed a law that enabled those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to join the program, if traditional treatment had failed to provide relief. (Lawmakers have also tried to add other conditions — like severe menstrual cramps — to the program through the legislative process, but without the same success.)

Last summer, the DOH announced it would consider expanding the program and provided petitions for people to submit in favor of adding certain conditions. The MMP hired an executive director, Sue Carson, in January, and the panel held a hearing in February on dozens of petitions submitted, followed by another public meeting in May.

Adding 5 categories

At the May session, panel members voted to add five general categories of maladies, with more than 40 specific causes, to the state’s medicinal marijuana program; they declined to recommend two others for approval — asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome. Current guidelines allow patients to purchase legal pot to help with a dozen diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, as well as seizure disorders, glaucoma, and other conditions when they don’t respond to other treatments.

In its 2016 annual report, released in February, the MMP said there were roughly 11,000 registered participants, a number that has since risen to more than 13,200, officials said. Participants pay a $200 registration fee — which can be waived for hardship — to see one of the program’s 474 doctors, who can issue a prescription to purchase up to two ounces of pot, raised under strict state control, from one of the five current Alternative Treatment Centers.

Just two weeks ago, the DOH issued a permit to the sixth operator, Harmony Foundation in Secaucus, after extensive review of the application, the site, and the corporate officers involved. A state laboratory must still test the pot grown by Harmony to determine the potency before the state will allow it to open for business.

According to its website, Harmony — which involves a 10,000 square-foot former warehouse under development for two years — said its experienced scientists and world-class modern agricultural technology will allow it to produce “the purest, most consistent, and effective strains.” Harmony officials anticipate they can supply as many as 4,000 customers a month.

While they have welcomed the program’s expansion, albeit at a slow pace, advocates for marijuana have also focused growing attention on what they see as the real future: full legalization of the drug.

State Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Hudson) has led a campaign to reform the state’s pot laws, including leading a tour of industry sites in Colorado, which made the move recently; he has since introduced legislation to do so in the Garden State. And last week U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a proposal to legalize cannabis on a federal level as part of a justice-reform plan.

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