Bill would let doctors decide who gets medical marijuana

There was a rare recess in the middle of Thursday’s Health and Senior Services Committee hearing on the expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program. Democratic Assemblymen Reed Gusciora and Herb Conaway, who chair the committee, had differing bills, and the pause was an attempt to marry them.

“What we intend to do is to merge the bills into a substitute, which we intend to pass out of committee today,” said Conaway.

Upon reconvening, the committee took up the merged bill, which kept most of what Conaway’s version included. It represents a radical rethinking of the state’s medical marijuana law. While the governor’s own task force prepares to expand the number of conditions eligible for the program, the Conaway bill takes the state out of it and puts the decision-making in the hands of your physician. The bill also raises the monthly limit of marijuana scripts from two ounces to four.

It increases the number of grower/processors to 12 — four each in central, southern, and northern New Jersey — and ups the number of dispensaries from six to 40. Radical for some, but, for others, inadequate.

“My estimate is that by the end of the year, we’ll have triple the number of patients to about 45,000/50,000. Chronic pain, especially, is going to double the number of patients almost immediately, so 12 cultivation centers, I’m not sure is going to do it. If I was doing this, I would recommend 18 for the first year, and then have it reviewed two years down the road. I just don’t think 12 is going to be able to keep up,” said Peter Rosenfeld, a board member of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.

“You will hear repeatedly from patients, it’s the wait times, lack of adequate supply. You go to one center and they have a strain that treats your condition. You go back and it’s not available the next time. They can’t consistently produce the same strains and have enough supply to meet demand. And I think with the new bill and the added qualifying conditions, you’re going to see that demand soar and supply has to go with it,” said Anne Davis, a medical marijuana patient.

All the talk of more supply and more eligible conditions had some Republican members wondering if this was really just a back door entrance to de facto legalization.

“We’re expanding it. We’re doubling the limits and the threshold. We’re opening it up for children and we’re a heavily over-medicated society to begin with. I want to make sure that people who need it, absolutely, let’s make sure they get it, but let’s also make sure that we have proper protocols and procedures, so that we aren’t creating opioid crisis, part two,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

The bill cleared committee pending amendments, but its future is already unclear because the governor’s task force on the issue has yet to present a report. But with bills on legalization, decriminalization and now medical program expansion being debated, it’s clear that the formerly too-taboo-to-consider subject is suddenly the thing to talk about in Trenton.

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