Medical Marijuana Patients and Advocates Speak Out at New Jersey Oversight Hearing

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Medical marijuana patients and advocates finally had a chance to air their grievances with the New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Program at an Assembly Regulatory Oversight committee hearing at the New Jersey State House in Trenton today. The committee was led by Chairman Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and Vice-Chair Assemblyman Timothy J. Eustace.

Representatives from the Coalition for Medical Marijuana – New Jersey (CMMNJ) and NORML New Jersey spoke at the hearing, as well as individual patients testifying on their own behalf. A representative elected by the state’s ATCs (Alternative Treatment Centers, also known as dispensaries) also testified.

Patients in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, touted as the “strictest in the nation,” have faced many obstacles since the program begin in late 2011. Of the 6 alternative treatment centers allowed by state regulations, only 3 have opened, and according to advocates, only one is actually functional.

Victoria Brogan, Director of Legislative Services for the NJ Department of Health spoke on behalf of Mary O’Dowd, Commissioner of the New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Program. Brogan reported that the program would be releasing long-awaited reports on the status of the program “soon.” The reports will detail product testing information as well as statistics on registered patients and ATCs. Although Brogan stated that the program had made “significant progress” since its inception, the testimony of advocates, patients, and a dispensary representative told a different story.

Michael Weisser, a representative from New Jersey’s ATCs, voiced concerns he has learned from dealing with patients, including access for homebound patients, the need for edible products for adults as well as children, the needĀ for chronic pain as an added qualifying condition, and the problems created due to the state’s “Physician Registry,” which requires doctors to sign up for the program and take a course in addiction medicine in order to recommend patients for state-issued medical marijuana cards.

Peter Rosenfeld of CMMNJ further illustrated the challenges New Jersey patients are experiencing. According to Rosenfeld, patients throughout the entire state are relying on a single dispensary to access medication, with many patients having to travel for hours to the ATC location. Rosenfeld also described the high cost of signing up for the program, as well as the high cost of the medication itself, which is preventing many patients from joining the program and placing undue hardship on those who have.

AdvocatesEvan Nison of NORML New Jersey repeated Weisser’s recommendation that the Physician Registry should be optional rather than a requirement for doctors wishing to recommend medical marijuana cards. Anne Davis of NORML New Jersey, who has multiple sclerosis, reported that her own 3 doctors have told her they believe medical marijuana would be beneficial to her, but none are willing to sign up for the Physician Registry. A few speakers agreed that many doctors are unwilling to join the registry because of pressure from their employers or professional organizations, or their disagreement with the need to take an addictive medicine course for the program.

Many speakers talked about the high cost of the program for patients, many of whom are unable to work due to their conditions. Advocates described the cost to patients in other medical marijuana states as being far more affordable than in New Jersey.

Undoubtedly the most compelling testimony came from Paula Joana, the mother of Sabina Rose Joana, who died last December at 15 months of age. Joana told the committee that if Sabina Rose had gotten access to medical marijuana in a timely fashion, she might still be alive today. Joana cited the program’s difficult registration process which includes a requirement for minors to get recommendations from 3 separate doctors, as well as the lack of requirement for doctors to submit patient applications in a timely manner.

Patient testimony included that of Stephen Cuspilich, who suffers from Crohn’s disease. Cuspilich spoke out about the requirement for patients to renew their recommendations repeatedly. “A chronic disease does not change,” said Cuspilich, who believes that people who suffer from chronic conditions should only need to be certified by a physician once, or on a yearly basis, adding “why should my disease turn into everyone’s cash cow?”

At the conclusion of the hearing, Chairman Gusciora indicated that today’s testimony would likely motivate changes in the program’s regulations.