Chronic pain considered for medical marijuana use in New Jersey

Listening to testimony to a medical panel on expanding the number of ailments and conditions covered under the NJ Medical Marijuana program at a hearing February 22, 2017 in the War Memorial in Trenton are Ricardo Rivera (left), founder of Tuffy’s Fight — named for his 10-year-old daughter who is a pediatric medical marijuana patient — and Jim Miller, co-founder of Coalition for Medical Marijuana in N.J. Rivera, who is holding a collage of Rivera's sister Matilda Candelaria, who died of opioid overdose in 2015 after suffering from chronic pain, testified. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

TRENTON -- Chronic pain may be added to the list of ailments that qualify for medical marijuana treatment in New Jersey, according to the chairman of a Health Department advisory panel that took emotional testimony from patients Wednesday in a crowded meeting room at the War Memorial.

The panel will decide in the coming months whether to recommend that the health commissioner expand the list, which now has about a dozen ailments, including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. 

“I feel there is sufficient evidence to add chronic pain and migraines and fibromyalgia, all under the one umbrella of chronic pain,” said Alex Bekker, a professor of anesthesiology  who chairs the panel. 

“I think everyone here [on the panel] is in favor of adding conditions that can be benefited without adding too much risk,” said Stephanie Zarus, who does health-care consulting and has a pharmaceutical background.  “I personally came in here with the belief we need to provide access to whatever therapy modalities are available on this earth to improve people’s conditions.” 

Zarus said she would support adding chronic pain, migraines, and many of the conditions that were named in petitions provided to the panel by the patients.  She said the panel had researched the conditions and understands its responsibility to identify those that may be helped by cannabis.  She said she thought the patients who testified spoke with passion and should not be denied access to something that may alleviate their pain.

Wednesday's two-hour hearing was the first time the panel held a public forum on whether to add conditions to the seven-year-old program.

More than 20 patients testified, most after submitting detailed petitions with references to health studies and with their doctor’s recommendations.   The Health Department said that it received 68 petitions last year and that these asked for about 20 new conditions to be considered, including lupus, autism, osteoarthritis, opiod addiction disorder, and various diseases. 

Pennsylvania, which is implementing a medical-marijuana program, includes chronic pain and autism in cases where conventional therapies fail.  Nineteen  other states also list chronic pain or conditions that can be construed as including chronic pain. 

Hailey Neluna, 22, of Manahawkin, said she was prescribed six medications, including steroids, that made her unable to function after she was diagnosed with lupus two years ago.  After she tried cannabis, she was able to reduce her medicines to two and said she feels much better.

“I’m stepping out of my comfort zone here,” Neluna said, “but I want to do my part.”  She said she plans to move to Colorado, where she can obtain cannabis legally, but feels empathy for others who are suffering and cannot move out of state.  New Jersey has one of the most restrictive medical-marijuana programs among the 25 states that have such programs. 

Suzanne O’Mullan of Chalfont, Pa., said her son, Danny, 23, who suffers from autism and is developmentally delayed, was helped immensely when she learned about cannabis and treated him with it.  “I’m so lucky I found this option because it saved his life,” she said.  “I beg you as a parent,” she said, to consider allowing patients to use cannabis, especially since it can “help these kids.”

Ricardo Rivera of Oaklyn testified that his daughter, Tuffy, uses medical marijuana for epilepsy, and that he wished his late sister had had the same opportunity to use cannabis for her chronic pain instead of resorting to heroin.  He said that she died of an opioid overdose in 2015.

Steven Jenison, a retired infectious-disease doctor and former medical director of New Mexico’s 10-year-old medical-marijuana program, presented his reasons for adding chronic pain on behalf of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, which invited him to testify.

Jenison said he is a paramedic for Rio Arriba County, which he said has the highest heroin overdose rate in the nation.  He said that cannabis manages the pain that is often treated with opioids and that the “prescription of opioids has gone down significantly” since chronic pain was added to the qualifying conditions in 2009 in his state. 

“Of all the conditions for which there is a good basis in science for using cannabis, chronic pain is it,” he said, noting it helps reduce inflammation and also helps people who develop emotional problems from chronic pain.

After the panel reviews the testimony and receives more public input, it will make its recommendations to Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett.  She will have the final say and has the ability under the law to add conditions at any time.