NJ Lawmakers Plan to Vote on Long-Awaited Changes to Marijuana Policies

Recreational use on agenda, along with significant expansion of state’s medicinal cannabis program

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Medical marijuana
Lawmakers plan to return to Trenton after Thanksgiving to vote on long-awaited proposals to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana in New Jersey and expand access to the state’s medicinal cannabis program. Among the most notable changes for medicinal marijuana is one that would allow any physician — not just those who register — to prescribe cannabis for any diagnosed condition, not only those already prescribed by law or state policy.

The controversial legislation to legalize pot possession and personal use by residents over the age of 21 — the subject of widespread attention over the past year — is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Monday, following months of wrangling by supporters to secure sufficient support.

But also on the agenda for both the budget committee and the Senate health committee are two bipartisan bills that would plug myriad gaps in New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana program, a popular initiative with broad legislative support. These would eliminate the current 6.6 percent sales tax on medicinal marijuana over three years, and significantly reform how it can be prescribed. While these measures were introduced months ago, and one was the subject of an Assembly hearing in March, they have stalled while legislative leaders amassed votes for the legalization plan.

Allow doctors to recommend it for any diagnosed condition

One medical marijuana bill would enable any doctor to recommend the drug for any diagnosed condition; under current law only registered physicians can prescribe it for specific ailments. The measure would also double the amount of medicine patients could obtain and require the state to license twice as many dispensaries as currently exist.

The other bill would expand program access to designated caregivers, including those in hospitals or nursing homes, allow terminally ill patients unlimited medicine, and provide new legal protections for participants, in addition to phasing out the sales tax and reducing program costs for patients. “All of the elements of the medical marijuana legislation will remove barriers to access for patients, in addition to lowering the cost of these important products,” said Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), a lead sponsor of the measures and chair of the health committee.

A Murphy pledge

Legalizing recreational marijuana was a campaign pledge from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and he has faced growing public pressure to get it done, despite concerns raised by some in law enforcement and local government about public safety, enforcement capacity, and health impacts. (The bill on the schedule Monday is widely considered to be a placeholder for legislation that has been under development behind closed doors.)

Murphy has also embraced and expanded the state’s medicinal marijuana program, with advocacy led by Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who has made it a mission to personally educate prescribers on the benefits of medical cannabis. Elnahal has also stressed that, even with legalization, there is a role for the medicinal program, especially for children and other young patients.

Once considered the among the most restrictive of the more than two dozen state medicinal marijuana programs nationwide, New Jersey’s initiative has recently expanded to cover more than 34,000 patients — double the number involved when Murphy took office in January, according to DOH figures. The state also added five new qualifying conditions, enabling individuals with various forms of pain, anxiety, migraines and Tourette’s Syndrome to access the program. And it signed up another 300 prescribers, for a total of 800 doctors who can grant patients’ access to the program.

“Physicians should consider marijuana as another appropriate treatment for patients with many medical conditions, especially diseases for which conventional therapies aren’t working for their patients,” said Elnahal, who has given more than a half-dozen clinical lectures on the benefits of the state’s program. The state has also cut program costs and made it easier, and faster, for patients to enroll.

Major change in prescribing practice

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Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union)
But one measure slated for lawmakers’ consideration would essentially flip the current prescribing practice on its head, eliminating a fixed list of prescribers and eligible conditions. The measure, (S-2426), sponsored by Vitale, and Sens. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) and Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), would amend the 2009 law that created the program, allowing any licensed physician to recommend the use of medical marijuana for any ailments, including to treat the side effects of an illness. It would also eliminate the need for physicians to register with the state to be able to prescribe the medicine.

(The companion version in the Assembly is sponsored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Gloucester, a doctor who chairs the health committee; Conaway has frequently opposed legislative mandates related to medical treatments.)

In addition, the bill would increase to four ounces the amount of marijuana a patient could obtain within 30 days; the law currently limits people to two ounces of the drug. It would also restrict physicians who prescribe the drug from having an ownership stake in any dispensary, although they could serve as unpaid board members.

The measure also would create new flexibility in the licensing system for medical marijuana dispensaries and orders the DOH to approve another six growing operations along with 34 more dispensaries. Currently, six of these retail sites operate statewide.

More options for patients

The second bill is (S-10) also sponsored by Vitale, O’Scanlon and Scutari. It would make additional changes to the same 2009 enabling legislation to allow more patients to qualify for the program without exhausting other treatments first, something required in the current law for several ailments. It would also allow physicians’ assistants and advance practice nurses to prescribe the drug, if they were licensed to dispense other controlled substances.

In addition, the legislation would permit patients to shop at any dispensary, instead of being limited to doing business with just one site. It would enable those expected to live only a year or less to get as much medicine as they wanted and would allow all patients to obtain different forms of the drug, including edible options, which are currently limited to minors. The measure would also ease access for registered caregivers who can assist patients in obtaining their medicine and ensure that hospitals and nursing homes have protocols to allow patients to use the drug safely in their facilities.