Gov. Murphy greatly expands New Jersey's medical marijuana program

In a growing room at Compassionate Sciences Alternative treatment center, the new marijuana dispensary and grow site in Bellmawr, Alec Mog and colleagues trim marijuana plants, a week before it opens, becoming the second in South Jersey, in 2015.

Gov. Murphy greatly expanded New Jersey’s medical marijuana program Tuesday, opening the door to tens of thousands of new patients and allowing the five dispensaries spread across the state to add satellite retail centers and cultivation facilities.

The governor added to the list of ailments that qualify for a cannabis prescription. He also cleared the way for any doctor in the state to prescribe cannabis, ending a system in which only those physicians who registered — and thus, joined a publicly available list of providers — could do so. He said some doctors had been reluctant to participate in the program because they viewed joining the list as a stigma.

He is also calling for legislation to double the amount that patients could purchase in a month, to 4 ounces.

Patients enrolled in the state’s eight-year-old medical marijuana program were quick to praise the governor’s announcement and said it was long overdue after years of inaction by Gov. Chris Christie, who imposed strict regulations and promised to veto any expansion of the program.

“The days of making patients jump through hoops are coming to an end,” Murphy said at a packed news conference during which he listed a host of changes to the program.  Chronic pain, anxiety, migraines, and Tourette’s syndrome are being added to the dozen ailments that previously could be treated with cannabis.

Camera icon JAN HEFLER
Gov. Murphy at a news conference in Trenton announcing major changes to the state’s medical marijuana program.

Currently, there are about 18,000 patients enrolled in the program and about 500 doctors.

Murphy said that in Michigan, a state with a population similar to New Jersey’s, there were about 220,000 patients.  “We will have a medical marijuana program … that at long last meets the needs of patients,” he said.

“Medical marijuana has saved my life,” said Aubrey Conway, a patient with spasticity who spoke before Murphy unveiled his proposals.  “This will save hundreds if not thousands of others.”

Robert Kane, a marijuana patient from Ocean View, Cape May County, said he was happy that the governor increased the list of qualified ailments.  He said that last year he petitioned the state Health Department  to add chronic pain and anxiety to the list and provided research showing it had helped people suffering from these ailments.  The previous list included terminal cancer, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.

Christie had opposed expansion of the strictly regulated program and said he viewed marijuana as a gateway drug that could lead to addiction. Murphy said research has proven that marijuana is safe and effective for some ailments.  However, he said the Health Department did not recommend adding opiate addiction disorder, as an advisory committee had recommended last year.

Murphy said that he would allow the five existing dispensaries and a sixth that is expected to open in the next few months to file applications to create satellite facilities around the state so patients don’t have to travel as far.  The $200 program registration fee will be slashed to $100, while veterans and senior citizens would qualify for a $20 reduced fee, along with those who receive public assistance.

When asked what he would do to help make marijuana more affordable, since its cost now averages about $400 a month, the governor said he would recommend that for-profit dispensaries be allowed to open in the state.  Currently the dispensaries are required to be nonprofit.

The changes come as state legislators weigh legalizing marijuana for recreational use.  Several bills that would do so are pending and the governor has said he supports the move.  But Murphy said he wanted to address changes to the medical marijuana program first, saying this was “a life and death” matter in many instances.

Mike and Janet Honig, who attended the news conference, said their 7-year-old son, Jake, used cannabis in the last three months of his life after being diagnosed with brain cancer.  “It made a tremendous difference when he was on it,” said Mike Honig, 35, of Howell.  “Before that, Jake was on morphine, OxyContin, Zofran, Zantac,” and other drugs that just made him sicker, Honig said.

Camera icon JAN HEFLER
Jake Honig, 7, of Howell, who died of brain cancer in January. His father, Mike Honig, said medical marijuana helped the child’s pain in his final months.

Honig said he was pleased that the changes will open the program up to more people who are suffering, and said he applauded Murphy’s proposal to allow patients to purchase 4 ounces of cannabis per month — twice the current allowance.

“When you are nearing the end of life, you need more,” he said.