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New Jersey Hints at Expanding Medical Marijuana Program

Jim Miller of CMMNJ at NJ State House: by Kit Friday
Jim Miller of CMMNJ at NJ State House: by Kit Friday

Jim Miller of CMMNJ at NJ State House: by Kit Friday

By Chris Goldstein

The Garden State’s Medical Marijuana Program is one of the most restrictive in the country. Six years after the law was passed there are just over 6,000 registered patients in a state with almost 9 million residents. Things could be changing.

NJ Advance Media reports that the New Jersey Department of Health released an annual review of the program on March 11 that says a panel is convening to consider new qualifying conditions.

The medical panel consists of Stewart A. Berkowitz, president of the State Board of Medical Examiners; anesthesiologist Alex Bekker; psychiatrists and addiction medicine specialists Cheryl Kennedy and Petros Levounis; pediatric oncologist Jessica Ann Scerbo; Mary L. Johansen who holds a PhD in nursing; pharmacist Mary M. Bridgeman; and pain management pharmacology specialist Stephanie Zarus. Read more here

Advocacy groups like the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ) and the NJ Drug Policy Alliance, along with patients who have been left out of the program, have spent years asking the Department of Health to open up the registry. Right now only eight conditions or a terminal diagnosis qualify.

The compassionate use law was signed in 2010 by outgoing governor Jon Corzine and it was the first medical marijuana bill to prohibit home cultivation.

Regulations overseen by Governor Chris Christie’s administration stymied the program. They included THC caps, strain limits and a special registry for doctors who want to recommend cannabis therapy. Fewer than 400 physicians have signed up. There are only five operating dispensaries in NJ and they sell marijuana at about $500 per ounce, plus a special tax imposed by Gov. Christie.

Two bills were debated in the NJ legislature last year that would have made some headway. But both lost steam before the end of the legislative session.

One bill would have allowed some workplace protections for patients while the other bill would have added PTSD as a qualifying condition.

Ken Wolski, executive director of CMMNJ, offered testimony in favor of adding PTSD.

«We believe it is a matter of of life and death because 22 [military] veterans commit suicide every day,» said Wolski.

A clinical study involving medical marijuana and PTSD is beginning this year and is lead by Dr. Sue Sisley. Working with the Multidisciplinary Institute for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the University of Pennsylvania, it is the first to be approved by federal authorities.

Dr. Sisley will administer federally grown marijuana to vets in Maryland and Arizona.

Currently, Oregon, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and New Mexico allow PTSD as a qualifying condition.

Given the glacial pace of any actions improve the New Jersey medical marijuana program the latest news does not mean progress will be swift. NJ DOH had promised to look into new conditions in April of 2015.