N.J. residents with chronic pain and other ailments seek medical marijuana

JBELL10
ACDC, one of the specialized strains of marijuana available at Compassionate Sciences Dispensary, grows in the dispensary's vegetation room in Bellmawr on Thursday, April 7, 2016. The strain contains high CBD and low THC, making it especially effective for treatment of epilepsy.

A migraine sufferer described headaches lasting from four to six hours that caused vomiting and rendered him unable to speak.

"I am speaking in my mind, but the words are mumbled and come out unintelligibly," he wrote in a petition asking the New Jersey Department of Health to let him to seek relief by using medical marijuana.

His petition is among 68 sent to the department to request that their ailments be added to the dozen conditions that qualify a patient to use medical marijuana in New Jersey.

Many of the petitions, some of which were made public Friday, contain deeply personal details of excruciating pain and provide a glimpse of how debilitating conditions make the writers' lives a daily challenge.

In September, Gov. Christie signed a bill that added post-traumatic stress disorder, the first expansion since medical marijuana was legalized seven years ago. Military veterans had lobbied for the bill for years, citing an increase in suicide rates attributed to PTSD, and anecdotal evidence and limited studies that show marijuana helps.

The department released 45 of the petitions submitted by the August deadline, saying the 23 others were rejected because they did not meet procedural requirements or had asked for PTSD to be considered.

Terminal cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and Crohn's disease are among ailments that can be treated with medical marijuana after a doctor registered with the program examines a patient and makes a recommendation. About 10,400 patients are in the program.

The latest petitioners named more than 20 other ailments, many of which can be grouped under the general categories of chronic pain, autism, migraines, and osteoarthritis.

Some were very rare or specific, including "sporadic hemiplegic migraine," which the petitioner said afflicts 0.03 percent of Americans.

In a handwritten report, a patient with lupus described how she had been prescribed eight different medications and discovered that only steroids and marijuana helped.

"Steroids are extremely harmful to the body, and I refuse to continue to pump my body with them," she wrote. "I smoke marijuana when I'm in excruciating pain, and it is the only time I get a period of relief. . . . Look me in the eyes after reading this and say, 'No.' "

A panel appointed this year by the health commissioner will take testimony from patients and vote on whether to expand the list, according to Donna Leusner, a Health Department representative. The hearing has not been scheduled.

After that, the panel's decision will "be posted on the department's website for a 60-day public comment period. The department also will hold a public hearing on the panel's recommendations. The panel will then make a final recommendation to the commissioner," who has the final say, Leusner said.

The 2010 law that legalized medical marijuana required hearings be scheduled after a panel was appointed. But Gov. Christie, who inherited the program from his predecessor, Jon S. Corzine, said at the time that he never would have signed the bill, and later said he was against expanding the program because he views medical marijuana as "a back door" to full legalization.

The implementation of the program has been frequently delayed, and a panel to consider adding qualifying conditions to the list was not created until last March. Leusner said at the time that the commissioner had difficulties finding applicants. The panel consists of eight doctors, pharmacists, and nurses.

The list of eligible conditions in Pennsylvania, which this year legalized medical marijuana, includes autism and chronic pain when conventional therapies fail, two conditions New Jersey does not allow.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, said patients who have illnesses that are not on the qualifying list have been suffering while waiting for the department to act.

"It was a great start to recognize that marijuana is a safe alternative for treating many conditions, but let's go beyond that. . . . It is estimated that about 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and marijuana is a safer alternative to opiates" and other heavily addictive prescription drugs, he said.

Wolski supports adding other conditions to the list.

Other conditions that patients are seeking approval for medical marijuana treatment are anxiety, Alzheimer's, fibromyalgia, traumatic brain injury, Tourette syndrome, dementia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, asthma, ataxia, chronic late stage Lyme disease, complex tremors, Fabry disease, lumbar radiculopathy, lupus, mental illness, neural foraminal stenosis, peripheral neuropathy and retinitis pigmentosa.

jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.philly.com/burlcobuzz

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