Proposed medical marijuana bill changes landscape for dispensaries

A Joint Appropriations Committee of the Legislature heard from 100 witnesses, mostly about the legalization of adult use cannabis, in a marathon session last week. But the bill that contains changes to the state’s medical marijuana program is the one that will have the most immediate impact on the state.

The bill makes some significant changes to the program:

  • Increases monthly prescription limit to 4 ounces
  • Allows Advanced Practice Nurses and physician assistants to prescribe cannabis
  • Allows dispensaries to become for-profit entities
  • Allows for limited nonmedical sales
  • Reduces the sales tax from the current 6.6 percent to zero over a four-year period
  • Allows patients to designate a caregiver to acquire medical cannabis
  • Allows for delivery service

Sen. Joe Vitale has been working, and continues to work, on the medical marijuana bill, which, even as it heads to the Legislature, is still undergoing some fine tuning. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that an adult use industry will make a medical marijuana industry redundant.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “The adult use is a much bigger deal because that’s a whole game changer for our society, for our culture. But we are creating an industry from the ground up, — whether it’s the medical industry or the recreational industry — so we want to get it right.”

Vitale’s focus is on maintaining a strong medical marijuana industry that could coexist with the recreational adult use industry, because while some people just want to get high legally, many other people may derive actual medical benefit from the plant.

“We saw the overdose death rate and the overdose rate fall in Colorado over time, primarily because providers weren’t prescribing an opioid as the first course of treatment to try to treat someone’s pain, that wasn’t significant. But for surgery, dental, it could be a number of things, even chronic back pain, the CBD oil and some of the other products that they derive from the flower have really been helping people with their pain management, also helping some children with childhood epilepsy,” he said.

An expanding medical industry makes research into other effective uses possible, and that, says Shaya Brodchandel, CEO of Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, is why the medical side of the industry should continue to be encouraged.

“Ease of access, and that’s the focus of the bill, to make it a better medical program for the patients,” said Brodchandel. “There are certain areas that will benefit patients by sticking to the medical — such as tax rates, and research, and other things that will have the patients stick to the medical program, as opposed to the adult use.”

Brodchandel also points out that weed isn’t cheap. At an average cost of $60 for an eighth of an ounce, the new max prescription of four ounces could cost a patient upward of $1,900 a month. And that’s an issue that will need to be addressed in the future.

“I think the main thing that needs to be done in the medical side is the insurance [companies] need to step up and start covering these hefty bills,” he notes. “All other medicine is covered by insurance, so if you’re not covered by insurance and you have to go out and purchase it from a retail store, it’s very difficult to actually stick to a program if you’re paying full price.”

New Jersey’s medical marijuana bill doesn’t cover that area, but dispensaries are cheering the bill because it focuses attention on the benefits to be derived from cannabis and makes it possible for the industry to carry out a medical mission, even if some lawmakers are simply anticipating the high from the potential tax revenue.