Many New Jersey doctors have steered clear of the state's medical marijuana law, but not Dr. Anthony Anzalone. The Rutherford-based physician has moved the focus of his practice to treating medical marijuana patients.
Trained as an obstetrician, Anzalone had a practice centered on preventive care for women. He frequently treated patients with chronic pain and grew frustrated that many were using powerful pain relievers with potentially dangerous side effects. He felt some could benefit from marijuana when the state enacted the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act.
Anzalone, 60, has since named his practice “New Jersey Medical Marijuana Doctors” and launched the website. He added that word of mouth has brought close to 200 patients who have registered for prescriptions using the substance.
Why he matters: At a time when many patients have struggled to find doctors willing to register with the state’s medical marijuana program, Anzalone has gone full-bore into an effort to treat as many patients as he has time in the workday -- and has expanded his hours into nights and Saturdays to try to meet the demand.
Anzalone said other doctors don’t understand how their patients could benefit from marijuana.
“They’re not aware of it -- they’re aware of what it does but they’re not aware of the medical benefits. They don’t want to risk their licenses. They don’t want to be an outcast by recommending it,” he said.
Anzalone said marijuana could be a good alternative to powerful medications like codeine.
“You can’t die from cannabis,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a medication that people don’t recognize and it has a bad rap.”
Changing the system from within: Anzalone is glad that patients have the opportunity to be legally prescribed medical marijuana, but he'd like to see changes.
He would like to make the dispensing of marijuana more a regular part of the rest of the healthcare system. He believes doctors should have a more direct supervisory role over the alternative treatment centers that grow and dispense marijuana.
He also believes that pharmacies should be able to dispense marijuana. That would make the plant like all other prescribed medications, and perhaps make towns less resistant to centers that are solely devoted to marijuana. This resistance has slowed finding sites for the six groups selected by the state to operate alternative treatment centers.
“If you’re going to treat this as medicine, then do so” by having healthcare professionals more directly involved in the distribution of marijuana, he said.
Waiting for the grass to grow: Anzalone is frustrated with the delays and the costs that patients have had to deal with while they wait for the state to approve the ATCs that grow and dispense marijuana. He also expressed frustration with Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, the state’s first ATC. Greenleaf has been troubled by slowdowns and not enough product to meet the demand.
Anzalone points to other states -- particularly Oregon -- as having appropriate safeguards to make sure the right patients receive medical marijuana without the long waits that New Jersey patients have experienced. He is glad that progress is being made to open dispensaries in Egg Harbor Township -- which is scheduled to open on October 28 -- and Woodbridge.
Winning hearts and minds: Anzalone said that many people don’t understand the variety of potential benefits that the marijuana plant can provide in addition to reducing pain. For instance, patients in chemotherapy have had success using marijuana to reduce nausea. He noted that studies are underway to examine how the different chemical compounds in the plant can affect other conditions.
“The misperception is that people are going to be walking around high, it’s addictive, it’s going to lead to crime,” Anzalone said. He said that if it’s used appropriately under a doctor’s supervision, then none of those perceptions are true.
He said these studies will help tailor specific marijuana varieties to specific patient needs. “It’s a fascinating medication if you really understand it,” he said.
Continuing marijuana education: Both doctors and patients should be made aware of the range of benefits that marijuana can provide, Anzalone said.
Anzalone would like to see a course on marijuana offered to doctors as part of continuing medical education in the state.
“It’s relatively simple. Why don’t we have training, make it a six-hour course,” on what marijuana is and how it interacts chemically with the body, Anzalone said. “It’s what a physician should know about any kind of medication.”
Who his patients are: Anzalone said he had never previously seen 99 percent of the patients who have approached him for marijuana prescriptions. Many have cancer. He’s had to reject some because their medical profiles don't match the state law. The law allows marijuana to be prescribed for patients with 11 different health conditions, as well as patients who have a prognosis of less than 12 months to live. He also rejected one prospective patient who tested positive for cocaine.
Playing politics with pot: Anzalone said that the medical question of whether marijuana can help patients shouldn’t be turned into a political issue. People have outdated views of the drug, based on the image of pot-smoking hippies, he said.
“I understand where people are coming from, but they have to change their ideas,” Anzalone said.
He said doctors have asked him if he was worried about the potential effects of prescribing marijuana.
“They said, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’” Anzalone said. “No. Afraid of what? I’m more afraid of dispensing opiates.”
A family man: Originally from Long Island, Anzalone went to medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he said he received a “good education.” He’s been practicing in New Jersey since 1986.
His family has been supportive of his decision to focus on medical marijuana. He said he spoke to both his 10-year-old son and his son’s friends about his decision so that it wouldn’t become a rumor at school.
“I’ve told him, ‘This is what daddy does, he helps out people with medical problems,’” Anzalone said.
He added that his 89-year-old mother, a Long Island resident, also understood why he was interested in focusing on marijuana. “She’s pre-modern -- she understands,” Anzalone said, likening the substance to traditional medical approaches.
“She asked me if she can help her with her arthritis, I said: ‘I can’t. I’d get arrested,’” Anzalone said.
Why he puts in the hours: Anzalone said the statewide demand that isn’t being met by other doctors leads to a nearly inexhaustible number of patients, so he tries to accommodate as many as he can.
“I’d be bored if I wasn’t busy,” Anzalone said, adding that he is planning to add a second office in southern New Jersey to serve more patients.
Anzalone adds that he works until 9 p.m. and on weekends because he wants to spend time with each patient. “That’s why I put in Saturday hours -- I say to the patient, ‘take your time, take it easy,’ – you know what I mean?” Anzalone said, adding that there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. “Where am I going to go? This is what I signed up for. I enjoy this immensely.”