New Rules to Further Expand NJ’s Medical Marijuana Program

Lilo H. Stainton | May 14, 2019 | Healthcare
Regulations will cut red tape for young patients, ease the way for more diseases or symptoms to be covered, among other changes

Credit: @LittleIvan via Twenty20
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New Jersey officials have revised the state’s medical marijuana program to reduce barriers to young patients, simplify the public process for further expanding the program, and provide greater flexibility to those growing, producing and selling medicinal cannabis.

The state Department of Health announced the regulatory changes Monday, the latest step in its ongoing quest to enable more New Jersey residents to legally obtain marijuana for a growing number of health conditions. The reforms are scheduled to take effect on May 20.

The new rules — which stem from an executive order Gov. Phil Murphy signed during his second week in office — will extend the program’s reach and codify a number of reforms that have already been put into practice including reducing the patient costs significantly, allowing doctors to participate without being publicly named, and adding to the list of “qualifying conditions.”

Nearly two dozen diseases or symptoms are now eligible for medical marijuana treatment in New Jersey, including opioid use disorders, and the program covers 46,300 patients, according to the state.

In addition, the regulations announced Monday eliminate the requirement that minors with certain conditions must receive a psychiatric evaluation as well as a physician’s recommendation to obtain medical marijuana; adults do not face the same hurdle. They also simplify the process the public can use to encourage the DOH to add more qualifying conditions to the list.

Separate permitting systems

The rules also provide new guidance to the Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel, which advises the state on cannabis policy, and create separate permitting systems for cultivation, manufacturing and dispensing operations in an effort to make more marijuana available to the public and at more locations. Until now, these three aspects of the business were bundled together under a single permitting process.

“These rules solidify key program reforms to ensure greater patient access to this effective therapy,” DOH Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal said. “With these changes, the Department will be able to add conditions more rapidly, remove barriers for minors and increase supply of product available.”

The development comes as efforts to grow the program legislatively have stalled after lawmakers tied medical marijuana reform proposals to a controversial package of bills to legalize adult cannabis use, which has divided members of the controlling Democratic Party. Murphy, a Democrat, made legalizing marijuana a major plank in his run for governor, but has recently refocused on growing the medicinal program.

(Lawmakers continue to struggle with the legalization measures as debate heats up around the state budget, which must be approved by July. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, is scheduled to hold a press conference to discuss marijuana legislation today.)

NJ has added thousands of patients to the program

Since he took office in early 2018, Murphy, with help from Elnahal, has presided over a massive expansion of New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, with the health commissioner advocating for it on social media and in numerous lectures with physicians and other health professionals. The state said it has added nearly 28,000 additional patients and nearly doubled the number of doctors participating, to 950, over the last 14 months.

Patients have long advocated for a more robust medicinal marijuana program and have battled for years to expand the list of qualifying conditions, among other changes. The program was signed into law by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, shortly before he left office in 2010. But Republican Chris Christie, who replaced him — and considered cannabis a “gateway drug” — effectively stalled the program for years before implementing what critics said was the nation’s most restrictive initiative.

Murphy’s executive order — which charged the department with reviewing all aspects of the program to expand access and eliminate bureaucratic barriers — has already enabled a number of reforms. The DOH has cut in half the average wait time for patients to get a marijuana program card, a process that once took at least a month, and has made it easier for caregivers to obtain medicine on behalf of homebound patients. In addition, in December it approved permits for six new dispensaries, which will double the number of retail sites where qualified New Jerseyans can obtain the medicine.

Lawmakers have proposed further reforms to the medicinal cannabis program, including allowing patients to purchase more product and enabling a greater variety of healthcare providers to recommend cannabis. But that bill, amended to honor seven-year-old Jake Honig of Howell, a medicinal marijuana patient who died of cancer in January 2018, has been held hostage by the debate over legalization.