By Payton Guion and Susan K. Livio
Effectively immediately, doctors in New Jersey can recommend their patients use medical marijuana to treat anxiety, various forms of chronic pain, migraines and Tourette’s syndrome.
The conditions have been added under the first stage of a wide-ranging expansion of the medicinal marijuana program announced Tuesday by Gov. Phil Murphy .
Patients will also pay less to register with the program, have more locations from which to buy their medicine, and encounter fewer bureaucratic obstacles when they enroll, Murphy said in a press conference in Trenton.
“Patients should be treated as patients, not criminals. We will be guided by science,” Murphy said. No more would patients be “failed by a system that has been prevented from delivering the compassionate care it promised nearly a decade ago.”
Murphy said former Gov. Chris Christie imposed a stigma on the program by making it hard for patients to qualify and cultivators to operate. Christie inherited what he called a bad law, and resisted most requests to expand the program, more than once calling them a back-door to outright legalization.
The immediate changes, contained in a 28-page report by Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal, expands the list of medical conditions based on an advisory panel’s recommendation from October.
Chronic pain affecting internal organs and the muscular and skeletal system is expected to draw thousands of patients and swell the program way beyonds its registry of 18,874 patients.
The program will cut registration and renewal fees from $200 to $100 every two years, with senior citizens 65 and older and veterans added to the category of patients who pay only $20, according to the report.
Physicians must still recommend patients to the program but Murphy abolished the public registry, which deterred many from joining in fear of the stigma associated with what is still an illegal substance. There are just 536 physicians registered in a state with 28,000 doctors.
Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith, a 36-year-old Flemington women with ALS, said at the news conference that she consumes cannabis products from the black market. She hasn’t been able to join the program because she hasn’t found a doctor willing to recommend her. That could change with the end of the required registry.
“My doctors have refused to help me find someone,” she said with the aid of Jeremy Kopecky, her boyfriend. “I’m really excited about how (Murphy) is going to change the stigma.”
Aubrey Conway, a 33-year-old registered patient from Sayreville, described how cannabis helped her regain her energy and strength while living with a battery of conditions such as autoimmune diseases and intractable skeletal muscular spasticity.
Conway said she abandoned the use of steroids and pills, which made her feel worse, and researched marijuana. “Let me be clear: this was not an easy decision. I was concerned about how my children would react and how my usage would be perceived by others.”
“Medical marijuana saved my life,” Conway said. “I hope it can save so many others.”
Patients may not have to drive so far to get to a dispensary, which has long been a complaint. The state’s five dispensaries in Montclair, Egg Harbor, Woodbridge, Cranbury and Bellmawr may apply to open satellite retail locations and add a new cultivation site. A sixth dispensary in Secaucus has not opened yet.
Ken Wolski, the executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said he approved of the recommended changes to the state’s program, but said he sees this as “just the beginning.”
His main concern: “Is supply going to be able to meet the demand?”
Julio Valentin, CEO of Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, said the proposed changes to New Jersey’s medical marijuana program would allow him to serve “thousands more patients.”
“Altogether, I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Valentin said. “I think what helps everyone is that it opens up to more debilitating disabilities.”
Valentin and Greenleaf have already been planning an expansion of their current production facility, he said. The work should be done within two months and then he’d be ready to ramp up cannabis production, he added.
Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge has an additional 20,000 square feet in which it can boost production in its current facility, General Manager Aaron Epstein said recently.
Compassionate Care Foundation of Egg Harbor also has room inside the 80,000 square-foot facility to double growth in 90 days, and “double it again in another 90 days,” said David Knowlton, board president.
The Murphy administration will also license more companies to grow, cultivate and sell medicinal marijuana. Deputy Health Commissioner Jackie Cornell said she expects the process, from rule-making, to licensing, coinstruction and approval, to take a year.
Murphy also announced he was elevating the program to its own division within the health department, and putting Jeffrey Brown, formerly of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a policy and consumer advocacy group, in charge as assistant commissioner.
Murphy said he recommends legislators change the the law to allow patients to buy up to four ounces instead of two ounces a month, allowing hospice patients to buy an unlimited supply, and permitting adults to buy edible products, which Christie limited to just minors.