(TRENTON) — The General Assembly Thursday approved a three-bill package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Reed Gusciora, Tim Eustace, Cleopatra Tucker, Vince Mazzeo and Linda Stender to make New Jersey’s medical marijuana program work better for patients with severe illnesses who rely on the program for medical relief.
Gusciora, Eustace & Tucker issued a multimedia package on their bill package, following its passage.
The audio file is available upon request.
A transcript of comments from the trio of legislators is appended to the end of this release.
The first measure (ACR-224), sponsored by Gusciora, Eustace and Tucker, would require the state Department of Health (DOH) to revise certain regulations concerning New Jersey’s medical marijuana program because they are not consistent with the legislature’s original intent for the law and have placed an undue burden on patients. It passed the Assembly by a vote of 44-20-8.
The resolution gives the Health Commissioner 30 days from the date of transmittal of this resolution to amend or withdraw the regulations, or the legislature may, by passage of another concurrent resolution, exercise its authority under the state constitution to invalidate the rules and regulations in whole or in part.
“The purpose of this entire program is to provide relief to critically ill patients, not impose additional burdens on those who are already suffering. Instead, many of these regulations have proven counterproductive because they unnecessarily restrict access to medical marijuana for those who need it most,” said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “They have resulted in a shortage of physicians, a lack of necessary strains to combat certain illnesses, and limited the ways to provide relief to minors. The state needs to start working with patients, not against them.”
Specifically, one regulation requires physicians to register with the DOH, and the department currently makes the list of registered physicians available to the general public.
Another regulation requires the approval of up to three physicians, including a psychiatrist, to authorize medical marijuana for a patient who is a minor.
“No other medication requires the approval of three health care practitioners to be authorized for a patient,” added Eustace. “This requirement unduly restricts access to medical marijuana for young patients in need and must be changed.”
Further, although the legislature amended the medical marijuana act in 2013 to authorize edible forms of medical marijuana for patients who are minors, two other regulations directly contradict this by prohibiting alternative treatment centers from producing and dispensing medical marijuana in edible form.
Two other regulations limit the permissible levels of THC that medical marijuana may contain to 10 percent. The sponsors noted that no other state with a medical marijuana program has imposed such a limit.
Similarly, another part of the law written by the legislature expressly provides that, “An alternative treatment center shall not be limited in the number of strains of medical marijuana cultivated.” Meanwhile, another of the health department’s regulations directly contravenes this by providing that alternative treatment centers may cultivate no more than three strains of medical marijuana.
“Taken together, these provisions arbitrarily restrict the ability of physicians to authorize medical marijuana in a form and strength appropriate to each patient’s unique treatment needs,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “Ultimately, they limit access to medical marijuana for those patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions the act was intended to benefit.”
Remaining regulations that contradict the legislature’s original intent of the law limit access to medical marijuana for patients by prohibiting alternative treatment centers from dispensing medical marijuana through satellite locations and by prohibiting delivery of medical marijuana to the home or residence of a patient or primary caregiver.
Another provides that the commissioner of DOH must appoint a panel of up to 15 health care professionals to review and make recommendations on petitions for approval of new medical conditions for medical marijuana, which may cause significant and unnecessary delays in the approval of new medical conditions given the size and additional restrictions on the composition of the panel.
The second bill (A-4286), sponsored by Eustace, would revise the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act to authorize an alternative treatment center to transfer to another alternative treatment center any excess inventory of: marijuana seeds, seedlings, or paraphernalia; marijuana plants; or marijuana packaged for use by qualifying patients in any form authorized by law. It passed the Assembly 57-11-5.
“This change would address recent issues that have been reported at certain alternative treatment centers, which have been unable to meet current patient demand because of difficulties in producing sufficient quantities of medical marijuana in a form that meets both state Health Department standards and patient treatment needs,” said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Permitting the transfer of excess inventory may help alleviate these issues and ensure that patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions receive needed medication.”
The third bill (A-3726), sponsored by Mazzeo and Stender, would add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of debilitating medical conditions that would qualify a patient to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. It passed by a vote of 53-13-7.
PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a traumatic event such as a physical or sexual assault, childhood neglect or physical abuse, a natural disaster, exposure to combat, or other extreme or life-threatening events. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, uncontrollable thoughts about the event, emotional distress, physical symptoms, feelings of numbness or detachment, engaging in dangerous or self-destructive behavior, and experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“Veterans — especially post-9/11 veterans — are the group most affected by PTSD,” said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). “The VA has stated that it wants each veteran to find the medication with the least amount of side effects that allows them the optimum level of independence. For many, medical marijuana is the drug that best fits that criteria and the only one to provide veterans with significant relief from the anxiety associated with PTSD.”
“For many veterans, the effects of PTSD can be profound and are not always healed by time,” said Stender (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union). “Like many other illnesses and conditions that are not easily treatable with traditional medication, medical marijuana holds the promise of providing significant relief for those suffering from PTSD.”
To qualify for medical marijuana, the patient’s PTSD symptoms would have to be resistant to conventional medical therapy, which generally combines psychotherapy with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. To be authorized for use of medical marijuana, the patient would have to meet the other requirements of the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act as well, including obtaining certification of the patient’s condition from a physician with whom the patient has a bona fide physician-patient relationship.
All three measures now head to the Senate for further consideration.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee Chair:
“We do acknowledge that the medical marijuana program is the strictest in the nation, but nonetheless, the Christie administration has made it stricter and more burdensome for both patients to get involved with the program but also physicians as well. We’d like to go back to the original intent of the legislation.
“There are patients that have MS or are suffering from AIDS or cancer in their last stages of life. We really need to alleviate their pain and suffering and medical marijuana has shown great promise in alleviating those ailments. When we make it more burdensome as a state for them to come into the alternative treatment centers we’re not really doing the patients any good.”
Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee Vice-Chair:
“The idea behind this package of bills is to make the medical marijuana laws work better for our citizens and for the people that desperately need these substances.
“The first is a bill that allows returning veterans, mostly, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder to get medical marijuana as part of the treatment package. It seems to help a lot and we have a record number of suicides in this population. We need to do anything possible to mitigate that.
“The second is a bill that allows portability of the product. If a dispensary has more than enough product and another doesn’t, they’re allowed to move that across to the other dispensary. It just makes it easier for the product to be available for the citizens of New Jersey.
“The third cleans up a lot of the regulations and allows the medical marijuana to be available to the patients that need it here in the state.”
Assemblywoman Cleopatra G. Tucker (D-Essex), Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair:
“Right now we having major problems with some of our facilities that were supposed to have dispensaries that dispense the marijuana, but out of the six we only have three that’s functioning; two don’t have the marijuana for the patients’ needs; and we have one that has all of the marijuana and they can’t get it to the other places. So, we want to make it so wherever you are, if your dispensary doesn’t have it and we have one with a surplus that one would be able to send it to the other places so it would make it easier for the patients that need it to get it.”
“This is not about pot heads sitting in a room waiting to get their fix. This is about people who are desperately ill and need something to make them feel better; allow them to eat; allow them to rest; just makes it easier for the patient to survive.”