NJ Spotlight

Nearly twice as many patients are able to benefit from New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, compared to involvement in January, and access to the medicine has been eased, with hundreds of additional prescribers available and the wait time for treatment cut in half.

That’s the latest from the state Department of Health, which oversees the Garden State’s medicinal cannabis program and which is scheduled to release new data today.

The state’s Medicinal Marijuana Program now covers some 34,000 residents, half of whom have signed up for the nearly decade-old program in the past nine months, the DOH said. The majority of these new patients are diagnosed with one of five medical conditions — which include pain from various sources, anxiety and migraines — that were made eligible for coverage when Gov. Phil Murphy significantly expanded the scope of the program in March.

In addition, doctors are showing new interest in the program, the DOH said, and a more efficient application process has significantly reduced the time it takes for patients to get a program card, allowing them to purchase the medicine legally. The state is also in the process of doubling the number of retail facilities where patients can obtain their medicinal marijuana.

“New Jersey’s program has made incredible strides in expanding access and becoming a compassionate, consumer-friendly service for patients by adding physicians and new medical conditions and seeking applications for another six dispensaries,” Murphy said.

Stalled under Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was signed into law in 2010, under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine — the last Democratic state executive. But its implementation was stalled under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who considered cannabis “a gateway drug” to harder substances.

Advocates for the therapy insist the state was left with a watered-down version of what the law envisioned, which grew slowly in the years before Murphy took office. Patients lamented that the program was far too exclusive in what conditions it covered; and those that were involved said that, with not enough doctors and clinics dispensing medicine, it took too long to obtain treatment.

Murphy, a Democrat who replaced Christie in mid-January, has made expanding the medicinal marijuana program a priority; he has also pushed the state to legalize recreational cannabis use for adults, a campaign that has encountered some resistance in the Legislature.

State DOH Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal has stressed that regardless of what happens with the legalization of recreational marijuana, there will remain a place for the medicinal marijuana program in New Jersey, in part to ensure children involved still have access to safe and appropriate treatment.

In March, Murphy announced sweeping reforms of the medicinal marijuana initiative that enabled patients with anxiety, migraines, Tourette’s Syndrome, and pain caused by muscular-skeletal or visceral issues to obtain marijuana through the program, adding these conditions to the dozen already eligible for the therapy.

Smaller application fee

The state also lowered the program fee for patients to $100 from $200, although many patients already receive discounts allowing them to participate for as little as $20. It also instituted other changes that made it more appealing to prescribing physicians, and reduced the barriers to children who could benefit from the treatment. In addition, it expanded the number of medical marijuana dispensaries operating statewide, currently capped at six.

By the end of May, as many as 100 patients daily were enrolling, and the program covered some 22,000 New Jersey residents. “The addition of five new medical conditions — anxiety, migraines, two forms of chronic pain and Tourette’s Syndrome — has been the primary driver in the growth of the program,” Elnahal said.

In addition, at least 100 new doctors had signed up by then, bringing the total number of prescribers to 600, a growth trend that continued as Elnahal, a licensed physician, started “grand rounds,” or peer-to-peer lectures for medical students, faculty and other healthcare professionals. So far, he has done seven seminars, with another planned Thursday, and physician participation has grown by roughly 50 percent in recent months.

“Physicians should consider marijuana as another appropriate treatment for patients with many medical conditions, especially diseases for which conventional therapies aren’t working for their patients,” Elnahal said.

More physicians

According to the DOH, these efforts have also resulted in the following:

  • Some 800 physicians are now involved with the program, up from the 500 involved when Murphy took office.

  • Two weeks is now the average patients must wait for a medical marijuana ID card, down from a month thanks to reforms in the application process; in addition, the sign-up can now be done from a mobile phone.

  • Caregivers can now get preliminary cards while awaiting the results of a background check; some 1,345 individuals are now registered to help terminally ill patients obtain medicine from the dispensaries.

  • More than 100 organizations submitted applications to open one of the six new dispensaries approved for central, north and South Jersey, each of which is eligible for two new facilities. The state is slated to announce a preliminary decision on new dispensary locations in the weeks to come.

  • The six existing dispensaries can now advertise their prices online, enabling patients to comparison shop for the best deal on the strain of marijuana they need.

  • The DOH is also exploring adding opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, in concert with Medication Assisted Treatment, the use of prescribed opiates to control addiction cravings and behavior.

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