Gov. Murphy signals support for expanded access to medical marijuana - and maybe even home delivery

Marijuana that was cultivated at the Compassionate Sciences Dispensary in Bellmawr. For the Inquirer)

Gov. Murphy on Tuesday signaled his support for expanding the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in New Jersey — and even said he would consider allowing home deliveries.

The governor was also receptive to finding ways to offer edible cannabis products to patients and said he would consider increasing the amount of marijuana that can be purchased at one time.

Murphy signed an executive order directing state Department of Health and the Board of Medical Examiners to review New Jersey’s struggling eight-year-old medical marijuana program to improve access for patients. Recommendations are due within 60 days.

The state has just five medical marijuana dispensaries, forcing some patients to drive a distance to obtain the drug, and current regulations limit purchases to two ounces a month.

“We need to treat our residents with compassion,” Murphy said Tuesday. “We cannot turn a deaf ear to our veterans, the families of children facing terminal illness, or to any of the other countless New Jerseyans who only wish to be treated like people and not criminals,” he said.

Murphy’s willingness to consider expanded access stands in contrast to the stance of  former Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed proposals to expand the program after inheriting it from the previous administration. Christie favored strict regulations, saying he wanted to make sure that only the truly ill could obtain it.  He vetoed some measures that would have increased access and threatened to veto similar proposals.

Ken Wolski, the executive director of Coalition Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said Christie’s policy discouraged some patients and that only about 15,000 enrolled.  “In a state with nine million people, this program is really a failure,” said Wolski, a nurse, adding that many patients whose suffering could be alleviated by cannabis are denied access.

Advocates have been lobbying for the addition of new ailments to the list of medical conditions that qualify a patient to use cannabis to alleviate pain, with a doctor’s approval.  Currently, patients with about a dozen ailments, including epilepsy, terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma, are eligible.  Last year, an advisory panel of medical professionals recommended adding chronic pain, anxiety, and several other ailments to the list, but that proposal is awaiting the approval of the health commissioner.

Murphy did not take questions after speaking at a news conference on Tuesday and his spokesman later declined to comment on whether the governor wants the state agencies to expand the list of eligible ailments.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Murphy, a Democrat, promised to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use, and many patients applauded that as a way to improve access.  But other patients say allowing recreational use of cannabis could make it more difficult for them to obtain the less-potent marijuana strains they need for their ailments.

Patients and their advocates welcomed Murphy’s executive order to review the medical marijuana program and find ways to help patients gain access.