Medicinal marijuana patients in New Jersey could soon be able to purchase more medicine, from a greater number of licensed dispensaries, at the recommendation of a wider pool of healthcare professionals, and possibly for lower cost, thanks to legislation that advanced Monday.
Three legislative committees — two of which met in a joint session — voted in favor of a revised measure that combined two bills introduced last week to significantly expand the state’s medicinal cannabis program in the coming months. The proposal still requires approval by the full state Senate and Assembly.
But the Senate substitute did not include one key aspect that was part of the original bills, a provision that would have allowed physicians to recommend the drug for any condition as they saw fit. The concept was favored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Gloucester), a physician who sponsored the initial legislation and chairs the health committee that passed that bill in March. Conaway is also a member of the Assembly appropriations committee, but did not attend the hearing Monday.
The measure was also amended to honor seven-year-old Jake Honig of Howell, who died of cancer in January. His family said medicinal marijuana was the only treatment that offered him true relief — easing his pain from multiple tumors and enabling him to eat and play with his siblings — but the current legal limit of two ounces a month was often not enough.
“Marijuana literally kept Jake’s last months tolerable,” his father, Mike Honig, told the Senate health committee, the first panel to approve the measure. Honig was flanked by members of his family and Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), who has advocated for the family’s cause. “Cancer took Jake’s life, but marijuana kept his smile,” he added.
Sponsored by Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the health committee chairman, and Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the measure would allow advanced practice nurses and physicians assistants to join doctors in recommending the drug, if they register for the state program.
The bill would also phase out the current 6.6 percent sales tax on the medicine over the next five years and allow patients to obtain a total of three ounces a month after July; terminally ill individuals would not face any limits. Healthcare providers could even recommend a year’s worth of medicine, to be dispensed in monthly doses, reducing out-of-pocket costs and inconvenience for participants who must now visit a doctor multiple times a year to remain eligible.
In addition, the measure would require the state to license six new dispensaries in the coming months, doubling the options for qualified shoppers, and allow patients of any age to obtain edibles and other forms of the drug, which are currently restricted to those under age 18. And patients would no longer need to buy from one location, but could shop at any facility in the state.
“Healthcare providers should be able to offer their patients the use of marijuana for treatment without unreasonable restrictions,” Vitale said. “This will make it easier and faster for patients to make use of a proven and effective way of treating a wide range of conditions.”
Is NJ going to pot?
The medicinal marijuana bill was one of several pot-related proposals to advance Monday. Lawmakers in a joint meeting of the Assembly appropriations and Senate budget committees — who voted in favor of the medical cannabis bills late in the day — also heard hours of testimony before passing a controversial measure to legalize recreational marijuana use among adults.
Both legalization and expansion of the medical marijuana program have been priorities for Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who took office in January and hoped to implement an adult recreational pot program quickly. But legislative leaders have faced difficulty amassing the needed votes, and as a result, both proposals have languished for months.
Murphy’s administration has already grown the medicinal initiative significantly, adding five new qualifying conditions that enable patients to obtain the medication, reducing the program cost, and making it easier for patients and physicians to enroll. Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal has also pitched the program directly to healthcare professionals, and suggested he is open to additional expansions in a series of clinical lectures around the state.
Launched by legislation adopted nearly a decade ago, New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana program was once considered among the most restrictive in the nation. Some 30 states now permit use of the drug for medicinal reasons, despite federal regulations that make it illegal. The Garden State initiative now covers at least 36,500 patients — more than double the number of participants last year — and involves nearly 850 physicians, according to the state Department of Health, which now oversees the program.
Legislation by substitution
The 67-page bill unveiled Monday morning and approved that day is a Senate substitute that combined elements of S-10 and S-2426 and seeks to make the program even more comprehensive and inclusive. (It also changes all references to marijuana in the 2009 law to read “cannabis.”) Paper copies of the bill were shared in Trenton, but it was not available on the Legislature’s website later in the day.
The measure also would create a new commission to oversee the program, taking over much of the DOH’s role. It would also alter how the state licenses growers, manufacturers, and sellers of cannabis products and create a permit for research organizations associated with universities. All cannabis products would also need to be tested in a state-approved laboratory.
The measure also extends additional legal protections to prohibit discrimination in housing, education, employment, and healthcare treatment for program participants. But the wording was amended slightly at the request of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association to enable employers to take action against people who test positive for cannabis while on the job.
The legislation further seeks to ensure patients in long-term care facilities, including institutions serving mentally ill patients and individuals with developmental disabilities, can still access medicinal marijuana. It would create a registration process for “institutional caregivers” working with patients in these facilities and require administrators to set strict policy for the use of medicinal marijuana.
Lisa McCauley Parles, an attorney for disabled individuals and the parent of an adult son with autism and other medical conditions, urged the committee to also add group homes to the legislation. In many cases, family members must travel to these facilities to provide medication to their loved ones, a time-consuming process that can interfere with ongoing treatment, she said.
“It just doesn’t make sense for them to be forgotten in this legislation,” she said, “this group that so desperately needs treatment options.”