The best way to understand the profound effect marijuana can have on people who are suffering is to visit a medicinal cannabis dispensary. You’ll see people living with cancer pain, PTSD, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and a range of other debilitating disorders. In cannabis, they find relief. After years of advocacy, 36 states now have comprehensive medicinal marijuana programs, including New Jersey.
I fear, though, that the state medicinal programs that provide this botanical to patients could be crushed, ironically, by marijuana’s increasing acceptance. Seventeen states have enacted legislation to regulate recreational cannabis for adult use. In states that legalized adult use of marijuana years ago, we’ve seen the medicinal market overtaken by the recreational market.
In Oregon, for instance, nearly two-thirds of patients gave up their medical cards after legalization, according to press reports. The number of medical-only retail shops fell from 400 to two.
Patients may still get marijuana, but the destruction of the medicinal marijuana market fragments the relationship among patients, physicians and the alternative treatment centers with the expertise to help them. Additionally, many growers who specialize in strains of marijuana for medicinal patients — such as those with low levels of THC, the psychoactive component — start growing more popular recreational strains instead. Medicinal strains are more difficult and expensive to grow, especially for a limited market. And in New Jersey, we also fear there is simply insufficient growth overall to support the new recreational market as well the market for patients who take marijuana to relieve their suffering.
But we have an opportunity now to rewrite the narrative in New Jersey, where the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has the mandate to put protections in place for patients. Our state could become a national leader protecting access to medicinal marijuana.
Here’s what New Jersey must consider:
- Regulations that prioritize and protect medical programs and medicinal patients as the cannabis market increases with recreational use. These could include ways to reduce costs to medicinal patients, improve access, and strengthen doctor-patient engagement. The new law allows for delivery to medicinal patients, but the regulations haven’t been adopted yet. The goal is to make delivery as accessible as possible to medical patients.
- Insurance coverage of medicinal marijuana. There is some precedent here. A New Jersey court recently ruled that an employer must cover the cost of medicinal marijuana for an employee who was injured on the job. It’s interesting to note the patient was using his marijuana to deal with pain instead of opioids, on which he had become dependent. We also need to pass S-3799, which allows costs of medical cannabis to be reimbursed by the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund, Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled program, the Senior Gold Prescription Discount Program and Victims of Crime Compensation Office.
- Finally, we need all doctors in New Jersey to join the state medical marijuana program. This will enable more people who benefit from medicinal marijuana to remain under the care of their regular physicians and not have to seek out other practitioners. Medicinal cannabis is a medication, and people taking the botanical for medicinal reasons should be under the care of a health care provider. Although the number of physicians in the program has been increasing, only about 1,300 of the state’s more than 30,000 physicians have joined.
On the federal level, we must end regulations that all but stop research into medicinal marijuana. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no medicinal value and a high probability for harm. This incorrect classification is preventing the research that will give physicians, patients and insurers greater confidence in the medicinal value of cannabis. We need more research and understanding about what strains and doses are best for specific conditions — as well as research into new delivery systems, such as oils and edibles.
A good medicinal marijuana program revolves around the relationship between the patient and the physician, and the relationship between the patient and the alternative treatment center where medicinal cannabis is purchased. Patients need time to customize the right product and find the treatment that works best for them. Like most medications, cannabis is not one-size-fits-all.
I joined the nonprofit Cannabis Education and Research Institute (CERI) because, after some skepticism, I recognized that this ancient botanical has real value for many people who are suffering. Helping them should remain a priority in New Jersey as the cannabis market evolves.