Officials in the Murphy administration have been outspoken in their advocacy for expanding New Jersey’s medical marijuana program. Now the state’s top health official – a licensed physician – will take that message directly to other clinicians.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal is scheduled to begin a special series of “grand rounds” lectures today, with a forum for medical students, faculty, and other healthcare professionals at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The program is intended to help them better understand the potential uses and prescription protocols under the state’s medicinal cannabis program. (“Grand rounds” are a common medical education tool in which an expert outlines a patient’s clinical problems for the audience to discuss.)
While New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, which launched in late 2012, had been slow to start, interest in the initiative has expanded significantly since Murphy took office in January, with as many as 100 patients enrolling daily in recent months, according to the state Department of Health, which oversees the program. (The medical cannabis program is separate from the effort to legalize recreational marijuana, which Murphy also supports.)
Patients and family members have welcomed these changes, which some say are long overdue; the program now covers 16 conditions, including five approved by the DOH in March. The department also eliminated the requirement that doctors register in an online database, an effort to reduce the stigma associated with their involvement, and made it easier for physicians to prescribe the treatment for children. Other changes are still pending, including several that require legislative action.
Pulling in prescribers
While these efforts to engage more physicians are starting to have an impact, Elnahal said more needs to be done to make it more appealing to prescribers and to engage them as advocates for the cause — something the grand rounds are designed to accomplish. “The demand so far has come from patients,” he told the Senate budget committee earlier this month. “We want to turn the tide on that.”
Tuesday’s lecture — for which participants can get continuing education credit — will be held in New Brunswick, but broadcast live to viewers at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School campus in Newark and at St. Barnabas Medical Center, the headquarters of the RWJ/Barnabas Health system, in Livingston. In July, Elnahal will lead similar grand rounds presentations for clinicians at Hackensack Meridian Health’s Hackensack University Medical Center and St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, in Paterson.
New Jersey’s medical cannabis program now involves 22,000 patients, more than 900 caregivers — family members or other individuals registered to obtain medicine for a patient — and at least 600 physicians, 50 of whom signed up in recent months, according to the DOH. More than 4,000 new patients have enrolled since Murphy took office, many as a result of the program’s expansion to cover more conditions.
“We’re sort of working on catch-up here,” Elnahal told lawmakers. “The fact that we have made it difficult to access (medical marijuana) has not helped public health,” he said.
But the DOH’s 2017 annual report for the medical marijuana program, released last week, suggests some of this momentum predates the Murphy administration. Roughly half the qualified patients and two-third of the caregivers now registered actually enrolled between January and December of last year. More than 100 physicians also signed up in 2017.
Growing and harvesting
The report details the work of the five existing Alternative Treatment Centers, or ATCs, which must grow, process and sell their own marijuana under the current law. The smallest, Greenleaf Compassion Center, in Montclair, sold nearly 300 pounds of pot to almost 2,200 patients last year; Compassionate Science ATC, in Bellmawr, Camden County, is the largest, having dispensed more than 2,300 pounds of pot to some 6,350 members in 2017. (A sixth facility, in Secaucus, planted its first crop in October and expects to be ready to assist patients later this spring.)
Signed into law in early 2010 under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, the law didn’t take effect until the tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who considered marijuana a gateway drug and moved slowly to implement the program. New Jersey’s program is among the most restrictive of the two-dozen nationwide and advocates and patients had grown frustrated with the pace of change.
Murphy, a progressive Democrat, moved quickly to expand the program since he took office in January and the DOH outlined a series of changes in a March report. So far, the department has also created a mobile online registration system, launched a public outreach effort, and cut in half the bi-annual fee, to $100. (Nearly half the patients qualify for a discount rate of $20, the DOH noted.)
Other changes envisioned by the Murphy team require legislative cooperation. Elnahal hopes lawmakers will allow marijuana to be prescribed as a primary treatment for all diseases, not after other options fail — now the case for several conditions — and to allow all patients access to edibles, which are currently reserved for children. He would also like the law tweaked to let patients visit multiple ATCs, not be restricted to one location, and to obtain greater amounts of medicine, including unlimited supplies if they are in hospice care.
One additional medical condition Murphy would like to see included in the medical marijuana program is opioid addiction, a disease that contributed to nearly 2,000 deaths last year. Elnahal has said he is also open to this change and the possibility of using pot to address the symptoms of withdrawal or to reduce anxiety during recovery has come up during his testimony with the legislative budget committees.
Lawmakers may be ready to take steps to implement this change. Earlier this month, Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Bergen) introduced legislation to add substance abuse to the list of qualifying conditions for the state’s medical marijuana program. The bill (A-4015) awaits a hearing.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the most serious issues facing society today,” Rooney said. “Medical marijuana can help reduce reliance on opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths. It is time to enlist this promising tool in the war on heroin.”