New Jersey's health commissioner recently appointed a panel that will decide whether chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions should be added to the list of a dozen ailments that qualify a patient to buy medical marijuana in the state.
Patient advocates have been pressing for nearly four years to have the list expanded, saying it is too restrictive and prevents many severely ill patients from obtaining cannabis.
The state's medical marijuana law allows patients who suffer from multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV, AIDS, cancer associated with severe or chronic pain, glaucoma, Crohn's disease, terminal illnesses, and other conditions to buy up to two ounces of cannabis a month from a dispensary after obtaining a doctor's approval.
Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said Tuesday that the rules adopted starting in 2011 established patients' right to petition the panel to consider more conditions. But the state Health Department's failure to name a panel before this month had effectively shut the door on new patients, he said.
When he submitted a petition to the commissioner two years ago to add PTSD, it was rejected because the panel had not yet been created.
The Legislature also tried to get PTSD on the list by introducing a bill last year to amend the law, but Gov. Christie has said on numerous occasions that he will not sign any bill that expands the medical marijuana program. Christie has said he is concerned such changes could be a back door to legalizing recreational marijuana, which he opposes.
Wolski said that he was glad the new panel was created, but did not "really expect anything too meaningful to come of this." He said that acting Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett was appointed by Christie last year and will have final say over what the panel of eight doctors, pharmacists, and nurses recommends.
The panel members lack expertise in medical marijuana, Wolski said. Though their resumés are full of titles of research articles, courses and seminars they attended, and speeches they delivered, none is on the subject of medical marijuana, he said.
Donna Leusner, a Health Department spokesperson, said the department "sought recommendations from medical organizations and medical schools for physician and health-care professionals who would be interested in serving." She said they are volunteers and will be required to meet at least once a year to accept petitions.
Leusner said the department delayed naming the panel because "initially, an insufficient number of applicants came in."
Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, said the nonprofit had pushed for years for the panel's creation. She said representatives of the alliance met with the commissioner and submitted names, but none was selected.
Though she said she was pleased to see the panel finally was named, she said she was concerned about the appointees' qualifications. "There is no indication they have expertise in medical marijuana," she said.
Wolski said that only one of the five doctors on the panel, Cheryl A. Kennedy, is on the registry of physicians who recommend marijuana for their patients. He said one reason only about 6,900 patients are enrolled in the marijuana program statewide is that too few physicians are willing to participate - only 450. "Wouldn't it have been nice to see more doctors on the panel who are involved in the program?" he asked.
Kennedy, a psychiatrist at University Hospital in Newark, said Tuesday that she signed up for the registry because some of her patients, who suffer from HIV and multiple sclerosis, had requested that she approve them to use cannabis. Kennedy, also an associate professor of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said that medical marijuana can be beneficial and that "there's some good research coming out."
But Kennedy said that before she would agree to recommend more conditions be added to the list, she would have to examine "the strength of the evidence" and weigh hard data as well as anecdotal evidence.
She also said that she has expertise in medical marijuana because she has learned about it during continuing medical education courses on the topic of addiction.
Other panel members did not respond to calls for comment or could not be reached.
The other doctors on the panel are Stewart A. Berkowitz, a radiation oncologist who is the president of the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners; Jessica Anne Scerbo, a pediatric hematology/oncology attending physician at the Monmouth Medical Center; Alex Bekker, a professor of anesthesiology; and Petros Levounis, chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and a former director of the Addiction Institute of New York at Columbia University.
Also on the panel are Stephanie Zarus, managing director at Avancer, a Philadelphia-based business consulting firm for health-care companies, who previously worked as a registered pharmacist; Mary L. Johansen, a registered nurse who is a clinical associate professor at Rutgers-Newark; and Mary M. Bridgeman, a pharmacist who also teaches at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
Leusner said that the panel had not yet announced when it will meet to discuss the process for evaluating petitions. After that meeting, she said, the Health Department will publish a notice in the New Jersey Register announcing that the public can submit petitions.