New Jersey tries to recruit doctors for medicinal marijuana program

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

New Jersey Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal came to the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to share the state’s approach to its growing medicinal marijuana program.

Elnahal says 6,000 more New Jerseyans have sought medicinal marijuana since Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order in March added conditions to qualify. 22,000 already receive it from more than 600 doctors who recommend it. The commissioner came to recruit more doctors.

“I want this to be in physicians’ and other providers’ heads as a therapeutic option,” Elnahal said.

Why? Elnahal conceded New Jersey’s program for medicinal marijuana lacks hard scientific evidence and relies mostly on anecdotal reporting.

“Many times, it really is the best therapy you can give them for particular conditions,” Elnahal said.

He ran through a series of ailments and conditions, pointing out different levels of improvement, including one for opioid abuse.

“We have another piece of evidence that availability of marijuana has a positive effect in terms of reducing opioid prescriptions,” Elnahal said.

It’s clear from audience questions that doctors are not on the same page with the state health department when it comes to medicinal marijuana.

“I think when we get into the realm of psychiatric disorders, we really need to be much more cautious. And I think that the data truly is inconclusive at this point, especially for the long-term impact. These are conditions that already have very high rates of comorbid substance abuse disorders and we don’t know the long-term impact. In fact, the leading research right now on the biology of addiction suggests that all people use substances to take away bad feelings, so the idea that people would feel better when they use marijuana is not a surprise for a variety of conditions, and I don’t think we can totally interpret that as medicinal,” said Dr. Jill Williams, director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“There’s questionable efficacy for certain conditions,” Elnahal replied.

Elnahal said the state plans to eliminate psychiatrists signing off on medicinal marijuana for children. Child psychiatrist Dr. Ronke Babalola took issue with that.

“To think of it as equal as other medication, I really, you don’t have the evidence, for me, to actually jump on board and say I can do that,” Babalola said.

“Opioids are available by prescription, and a lot of harmful medications are available by prescriptions from any physician seeing a child without the need to see a psychiatrist,” Elnahal replied.

The state’s medical society has taken a neutral position on medical marijuana.

“There seems to be indications where it’s going to be helpful, so we’re in support of further studies. For our members that find that it might be useful, we have not said they can’t do that,” said Dr. John Poole, president of the Medical Society of New Jersey.

The health commissioner is touring the state encouraging doctors to join New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana program. At the same time, he concedes the subject needs a lot of scientific research, but since the federal government still considers marijuana a dangerous drug, it’s unlikely federal dollars, or the National Institutes of Health, will be a remedy for skepticism.