New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is one of the most stringent in the country, but Gov. Phil Murphy is taking steps to loosen some of those restrictions.
Murphy signed an executive order Tuesday directing the New Jersey Department of Health and the Board of Medical Examiners to review the state’s existing medical marijuana initiative.
“The system we have inherited can best be described as ‘medical marijuana’ in name only, more than in reality,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Our goal is to modernize the program in New Jersey, bring it up to current standards, and put patients first.”
The executive order itself doesn’t change any aspects of the law but rather calls for a 60-day study of the state’s medical marijuana program, with the intention of expanding access.
It calls for an analysis of the process for obtaining a medical marijuana dispensary license, including recommendations to speed up that process; the current list of medical conditions eligible for medical marijuana; and a recommendation as to whether doctors should be allowed to make these determinations on their own.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors of the state’s medical marijuana law, came out in support of the governor’s executive order.
“I’m thrilled that Gov. Murphy will seek to reverse this trend in the early hours of his administration,” Gusciora wrote in a press release. “By directing his Department of Health to look at ways to expand access, he is taking an important step towards fixing a program that has not met the needs of the people it is intended to serve.”
The state’s medical marijuana law has long been criticized for being strict to the point of exclusionary. Under the current statute, medical marijuana physicians, patients, and caregivers must be registered with the state and only patients with an “approved debilitating medical condition” are allowed to participate. Some of those illnesses include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease), and terminal illness. Some of the most common illnesses that qualify for medical marijuana in other states, like epilepsy, intractable skeletal muscular spasticity, glaucoma, and post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are only covered in New Jersey if all other conventional therapy efforts fail and were only recently added to the list.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the law — the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act — in 2010 establishing the system just before leaving office. Former Gov. Chris Christie who criticized the law and was strongly opposed to any form of legalization did little to expand the program during his administration and delayed its implementation until he could tighten restrictions.
As of the latest Department of Health report, five state-licensed dispensaries (known as alternative treatment centers) are currently in operation across New Jersey. Since the state formalized its registration process in 2012, 12,514 qualifying patients, 1,030 caregivers, and 529 physicians have been registered.
Jeanette Hoffman, spokesperson for New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (NJ-RAMP) an anti-legalization group, responded approvingly to Murphy’s order.
“It is appropriate for Gov. Murphy to study the medical marijuana system in New Jersey to ensure public health and safety are being served. We hope that the Department of Health (DOH) consult experts from public health and the addiction field, including medical doctors and prevention experts. We also expect the marijuana industry not to exert influence here, any more than the tobacco industry should influence DOH tobacco regulations.”
More than medical
Though this executive order deals specifically with medical marijuana, it is a symbol of Murphy’s intentions to legalize pot for both medicinal and recreational use. Murphy made legalizing recreational marijuana a pivotal issue in his campaign for governor, saying he would sign a legalization bill if it makes it through the Legislature.
A bill that would legalize possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for anyone age 21 and over, sponsored by Assemblymen Gusciora and Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), along with former Rahway Mayor James Kennedy, was reintroduced earlier this month and referred to the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee. An identical bill, sponsored by Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), was also introduced in the Senate and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.