Recreational Cannabis Has Come to New Jersey, but the State's Medical Marijuana Program Remains Largely Inaccessible to Populations Most in Need
By Donald A. Dennison
New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program is administered through the State Department of Health’s Division of Medicinal Marijuana. New Jersey was the fourteenth (14) state to legalize medical marijuana in January 2010 when the Legislature passed the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (“CUMMA”), also known as S 88.
Despite CUMMA’s passage being widely viewed as a victory for patients everywhere, the Program had some major flaws at its inception. Some of the flaws included:
(1) Limited “qualifying conditions” creating barriers to clinical eligibility;
(2) The need for specialized “registered physicians” who alone could sign off on patient certifications for the program;
(3) Prohibiting home deliveries of medical cannabis, even in situations where the patient was entirely homebound; and
(4) Creating arbitrary “maximum allowances” for individual patients at medical cannabis dispensaries also known as Alternative Treatment Centers (ATC).
In the eleven (11) years since CUMMA’s enactment, subsequent legislation has made the Medical Marijuana Program more accessible to a wider segment of the population, however, two disproportionately affected communities, the elderly and disabled, face continued bureaucratic red tape that unfairly limits or even prohibits access to this life-changing medication.
First, most of the information about New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program is published online, with very few “conventional” doctors promoting the Program in their day-to-day practices. This is not to say that elderly people are incapable of navigating the web to do their own research, quite the contrary. In fact, most elderly clients of mine are able to proficiently navigate the internet to handle their finances, send and receive e-mails, and look up the daily specials at their favorite restaurants. The issue is that many people are rightfully skeptical about what they read online, and “trustworthy” sites are hard to come by these days. In other words, the Program needs to be promoted more in person and at the primary care level.
Second, the State may take months to process an application, and the application itself requires significant attention to detail that some people, especially the elderly and infirm, may find challenging to navigate alone. Some online businesses have caught on to these issues and offer services that claim to assist in the process and/or expedite the process for qualified applicants for a fee. This example illustrates that the complexity of the process may serve as a deterrent for many, especially the very sick and the elderly.
Lastly, the Program’s rules and regulations are atypical compared to other widely known regulations involving a patient’s relationship with their doctor. The Program creates new terminology, new prescribers, new “pharmacies” (a/k/a dispensaries or Alternative Treatment Centers) and the need for annual re-certification in the Program. If fear of the unknown isn’t enough of a deterrent, then the new jargon may be!
I conclude by offering some aspiration and advice to those seeking certification in the Program. As to my aspiration, it is my sincere hope that a push to decriminalize recreational marijuana at the federal level does not leave real patients, those suffering from pain of both mind and body, in the shadows. Medical marijuana usage should not be confused with recreational marijuana usage, and our doctors, politicians, voters and everybody in between cannot lose sight of the fact that funding for medical marijuana research remains critically important.
As to my advice for those seeking certification in the Program: you are your own best advocate. Do your research, and don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor. Most importantly, don’t let old stigmas deter you from participating in the Program. Even if you are a patient in one of New Jersey’s 300+ nursing facilities, a certification to use medicinal marijuana requires your facility to make reasonable accommodations for you to take your medication in a safe and private setting. If you or a loved one are a patient in a long-term care facility that is creating barriers to access, or is denying access to medical marijuana altogether despite certification by a doctor, please feel free to contact our office for a consultation to discuss your rights.