O’Scanlon: Make Medical Marijuana Available Via Telemedicine

State Senate to vote today on legislation that would improve access, including for elderly and those with limited mobility
Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The bill would allow doctors to recommend medical cannabis to patients via video-conference or video messaging technology.

New Jersey has vastly expanded its medicinal cannabis law in recent years, enabling a much wider group of patients to qualify for the program, increasing the amount of medicine they can obtain at one time and launching plans to add carefully controlled home delivery.

New legislation scheduled for a vote in the full state Senate today would ensure patients also have the option of accessing medical marijuana through telemedicine, a growing health care segment that can be particularly useful for elderly individuals and others with limited mobility.

“A lot of people who use medicinal marijuana are pretty ill with cancer,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), the bill sponsor, by way of example. “Forcing them to go out of the house for treatment — there’s no sense.”

His bill, which passed the Senate health committee late last month, would ensure that any doctor or other clinician eligible to recommend medical cannabis could do so via video-conference or video messaging technology. (Audio-only and text messaging conversations are not considered appropriate for telemedicine under the state’s 2017 telemedicine law.)

O’Scanlon said he was concerned there might be gray areas in the telehealth and cannabis laws that could make providers and patients unsure if using telemedicine for marijuana is permitted in New Jersey, even though marijuana is now widely accepted to have legitimate medicinal value and used by a growing number of patients of all ages. “People need to understand the efficacy of cannabis is now established,” he said.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, which Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law in 2010, was considered among the U.S.’s most restrictive when it was finally put into place years later under regulations developed by former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. (Christie considered pot a “gateway drug” to harder substances.) Gov. Phil Murphy pledged to reform the program when he took office in 2018, and his staff has more than tripled patient numbers — to over 66,000 — and doubled the number of providers involved, to more than 1,000, since then.

Cutting fees, red tape

In addition to greatly expanding the number of diseases and conditions that enabled patients to qualify, Murphy’s administration cut the fees and red tape involved with signing up and made it more appealing for doctors to participate. They are now working to permit more dispensaries statewide.

In July, Murphy approved another far-reaching measure lawmakers had crafted to ease access to the program. (The governor’s push to legalize adult recreational use of the drug — another campaign promise — has proved more challenging.)

While some of the latest changes have yet to take effect (including home delivery), the 2019 law permits patients to receive annual certification for the program instead of doing so every 90 days, phases out the 6.6% sales tax, allows physician assistants and advanced nurse practitioners to recommend the drug (a role now limited to doctors), and enables bedridden patients to designate multiple caregivers who can pick up their medication.

O’Scanlon’s bill (S-619), which does not yet have an Assembly sponsor, would amend the state’s existing medical marijuana laws to further ease access for all patients, particularly those who are too ill to travel freely. That said, he underlined the importance of drafting legislation that protected against abuse.

“We can’t just have everyone dialing 1-800-Marijuana,” O’Scanlon said. “It’s not like ordering a pizza.”

Timelines for patient access

The measure, which would take effect immediately — if passed by both houses and signed into law by Murphy — would allow long-term care residents, developmentally disabled adults, terminally ill patients, individuals in hospice programs and those who are certified as homebound to use telemedicine right away to connect with a registered medical marijuana provider. That provider could approve them to get the medicine at a dispensary (via an approved caregiver, if needed), and also give them specific instructions on how to use the drugs, according to the legislation.

After nine months, the measure would require that medicinal marijuana be available via telehealth to any patient — including children — who meet the qualifying conditions under the existing law. However, patients who were not homebound, in long-term care or with other mobility issues would need to first have a face-to-face visit with the prescriber before they could use video conferencing options.

“There are a lot of sick people who will benefit” from using telehealth this way, O’Scanlon said.