The state Health Department reports 4,228 patients have been prescribed one of 33 strains of medical marijuana to treat conditions including severe muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain associated with cancer or AIDS. There are only 325 physicians who participate and only three dispensaries. The law is restrictive and the drug is expensive. Now some legislators are leaning on a procedural technicality that would force the Health Department to change the rules. And if it doesn’t, the Legislature can invalidate the regulations completely. Deputy Majority Leader Assemblyman Reed Gusciora spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about where medical marijuana stands in the Garden State.
Gusciora sponsored a concurrent resolution passed by the state Assembly last week which if the Senate passes would not be able to be vetoed by the governor. Concurrent resolutions, also known as legislative vetoes, are rarely used.
Gusciora said the concurrent resolution “deals with regulations that the executive branch has put into place. This would be essentially the Legislature saying that the regulations far exceed their executive authority.”
If the resolution passes the Senate, the Department of Heath will have 30 days to change regulations for medical marijuana. If the agency does not act, the Legislature can pass a second resolution that would invalidate the regulations, which could leave the medical marijuana program in regulatory limbo.
When asked why the Legislature would use use this strategy to reform medical marijuana, Gusciora said, “It’s been a complicated six-year history of the law. There’s only three dispensaries that are in operation out of the six.”
He says many physicians are reluctant to take part in the program because the regulations are too stringent on patients and physicians.
“[Physicians] can prescribe worse drugs — morphine, cocaine — but they can’t prescribe marijuana unless they’re registered with the state. Also patients have to pay the state $200 a year to participate in the program and then have to certify every 90 days that they have that ailment that qualifies them for medical marijuana,” he said. “If someone has MS they have to tell the state every 90 days that they still have MS. It’s very burdensome for physicians and patients alike. We’d like the state to really relax a lot of those regulations so the program can be fully implemented.”
Gusciora says that some of the strongest factors that are impeding the growth of medicinal marijuana program are “the burdens that we put on patients having to go back to the same doctor. The burdens on the physicians to take part in the program. A lot of the physicians don’t feel like they should have to register with the state; they went to medical school and they know how to prescribe medication. We’ve just made it burdensome for everyone around to get access to medical marijuana.”
Many patients and advocates of medical marijuana have pushed to add post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic pain ailments to the list of approved conditions. Last week the Assembly passed bills that would allow for the transfer of marijuana from one dispensary to anther, and also added PTSD to the list of covered conditions.
“It has showed great promise [in treating PTSD]. There are studies in Israel that have worked with soldiers coming off the battlefield that it’s helpful, at least in the initial treatment. We would be satisfied with at least opening the door for one more ailment,” Gusciora said.
Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd is setting up a panel of medical experts to oversee the regulation of medical marijuana program in New Jersey.
“I like Commissioner O’Dowd. She’s very conscientious and she’s been very receptive to suggestions, but I think that a wholesale revision of the regulations are needed at this time,” Gusciora said.