The best way to understand the profound effect that marijuana can have on sufferers is to visit a medical cannabis dispensary. You will see people with cancer pain, PTSD, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and a whole range of other debilitating disorders. In cannabis, they find relief. After years of advocacy, 36 states now have comprehensive medical marijuana programs, including New Jersey.
I am concerned, however, that the state medicinal programs that provide this herb to patients may be ironically crushed by the growing acceptance of marijuana. Seventeen states have enacted legislation to regulate recreational cannabis for adult use. In states that legalized adult marijuana use years ago, we’ve seen the medical market overtaken by the recreational market.
In Oregon, for example, nearly two-thirds of patients gave up their medical card after legalization, according to news reports. The number of exclusively medical retail stores has dropped from 400 to two.
Patients can still get marijuana, but the destruction of the medicinal marijuana market is fragmenting the relationship between patients, doctors, and alternative treatment centers with the expertise to help them. Additionally, many growers who specialize in varieties of marijuana for medicinal patients – such as those with low levels of THC, the psychoactive component – are starting to grow more popular recreational strains. Medicinal strains are more difficult and more expensive to grow, especially for a limited market. And in New Jersey, we’re also concerned that overall growth is simply insufficient to support the new recreational market as well as the market for patients who take marijuana for pain relief.
But now we have the opportunity to rewrite the narrative in New Jersey, where the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has a mandate to put in place protections for patients. Our state could become a national leader protecting access to medicinal marijuana.
Here’s what New Jersey needs to consider:
- Regulations that prioritize and protect medical programs and medicinal patients as the cannabis market grows with recreational use. These could include ways to reduce costs for medical patients, improve access, and strengthen physician-patient engagement. The new law allows medication to be administered to patients, but regulations have yet to be passed. The aim is to make the delivery as accessible as possible to medical patients.
- Medicinal Marijuana Insurance Coverage. There is a precedent here. A New Jersey court recently ruled that an employer must cover the cost of medicinal marijuana for an employee who was injured on the job. Interestingly, the patient used his marijuana to cope with the pain instead of the opioids, which he had become addicted to. We must also adopt the S-3799 standard, which allows reimbursement of the costs of medical cannabis by the Childhood Catastrophic Disease Relief Fund, the Elderly and Disabled Pharmaceutical Assistance Program, the Senior Gold Prescription Discount program. Program and the Crime Victims Compensation Office.
- Finally, we need all doctors in New Jersey to join the national medical marijuana program. This will allow more people who benefit from medicinal marijuana to remain under the care of their regular doctor and not have to seek other practitioners. Medicinal cannabis is a drug, and people who take it for medicinal purposes should be supervised by a healthcare practitioner. Although the number of physicians participating in the program has increased, only about 4,000 of the state’s more than 30,000 physicians have joined.
At the federal level, we need to end the regulations that end medical marijuana research. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which means that it has no medicinal value and has a high probability of harm. This misclassification precludes research that will give doctors, patients and insurers greater confidence in the medicinal value of cannabis. We need more research and understanding of which strains and dosages are best suited to specific conditions, as well as research into new delivery systems, such as oils and edibles.
A good medicinal marijuana program revolves around the relationship between the patient and the doctor, and the relationship between the patient and the alternative treatment center where the medicinal cannabis is purchased. Patients need time to customize the right product and find the treatment that’s best for them. Like most drugs, cannabis is not universal.
I joined the nonprofit Cannabis Education and Research Institute (CERI) because, after some skepticism, I recognized that this ancient plant is of real value to many people who are suffering. Helping them should remain a priority in New Jersey as the cannabis market evolves.