Health commissioner: Marijuana program needs more doctors to participate

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | September 17, 2018 | Health Care, Politics

In a room full of white coats and medical students, the state’s commissioner of health is making a hard sell to perhaps one of the most reluctant communities in the medical marijuana field — the very people who will prescribe it. But what does that reluctance stem from?

“I think it stems from the stigma that’s built up over time — that it’s only for recreational use, that it alters the mind, alters the sensorium. And of course it’s been used illegally for those reasons, but it has a lot of therapeutic benefits,” said Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal.

Elnahal has been taking his pitch on the road. This is his fourth lecture to health professionals in which he explained the ins and outs of the medicinal marijuana program.

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School first year student Daniel Oh asked Elnahal if there was any monitoring to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated.

“The side effect profile, in particular the risk for dependence, addiction, overdose, death — all of those are much lower and nonexistent for marijuana versus opioids. The other thing is we’re not necessarily recommending it as a first-line therapy, we’re just allowing you now to recommend it as a first-line therapy. It’s still a clinical judgement,” Elnahal replied.

Much of the hesitation stems from the opioid crisis engulfing the nation and New Jersey. Even still, the state is preparing to open six new dispensaries to keep up with demand. The Health Department says roughly 100 new patients a day are enrolling since expanding the list of qualifying health conditions.

Despite the state accelerating the program, the fact is less than 3 percent, or just 800 out of the 28,000 licensed physicians in the state, are registered to participate. Getting them on board will be critical for a successful program.

“It took many years to develop this certain view of medical marijuana, and it takes time to debunk the myths and misconception and fears about something so benign,” said Alex Bekker, chair of the department of anesthesia at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

But it’s not just about buy in. The DEA still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. Until that changes, it puts severe limits on it for acute care and inpatient use.

“It’s difficult to do research, and because it’s difficult to do research, it’s difficult to prove if it’s good or bad in a particular situation,” said Dekker.

“That opens us up to NIH funding. It opens us up to being able to submit to the FDA. It opens us up to hospitals being comfortable, having patients administer to themselves, nursing homes, long term care, places were many of our patients have to live that are professional health care institutions that are currently afraid to administer based on the fact that it’s still a Schedule 1 drug federally,” Elnahal said.

And that will take a lot more lectures and evidence-based studies to change.