NJ mulls expanding medical marijuana — Could this help combat heroin epidemic?
Perhaps by year’s end, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program could expand to include patients suffering from additional conditions, from very specific ailments to broader categories such as chronic pain.
New Jersey approved its program in 2010, and the first patients began being served in 2012 – but it wasn’t until September that the list of qualifying conditions was expanded, when Gov. Chris Christie signed a law adding post-traumatic stress disorder.
The state Department of Health is considering 45 petitions to expand eligibility, and its Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel Wednesday heard two hours of testimony on the idea from nearly two dozen patients, some of whom testified by phone.
Keesha Sanchez of Spotswood said medical marijuana should be an option for treating reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD, which afflicts her with a burning intense pain and has ended her body’s ability to control its own temperature.
“Sometimes it feels as if somebody has taken a can of gasoline and they poured it on my body, and they lit me on fire. It is that intense. But yet RSD is not on the list for medical marijuana,” Sanchez said.
“There’s days that I wake up and the swelling that are in my feet that I can’t walk. My husband has to carry me to the bathroom, carry me to bed. I have two children. I’ve lost the last three years from this progression,” she said. “What I’ve lost with my family – the days that I don’t want to go out because you become this horrible, angry person that just doesn’t want to be seen.”
Hailey Neluna of Manahawkin said lupus, an autoimmune disease, should be among the qualifying conditions.
“Lupus took away my passion, my pride, my self-confidence and most importantly my independence. Marijuana gave that back,” said Neluna, a recent Stockton University graduate who played soccer at the school until being diagnosed in 2015.
“I wake up with migraines. I never know when I’m going to have one or if my body’s going to hurt and I can’t get out of bed,” Neluna said. “I obviously have to go to school. I have to work. I have to pay my bills. And without marijuana, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed some days. I wouldn’t have been able to do my homework or study for a test.”
One recurring message at the public hearing was that New Jersey could limit people’s exposure to opioids by making marijuana an alternative medical option for chronic pain.
New Jersey is one of the few states with a medical marijuana program that doesn’t have chronic pain among its general qualifying conditions, said Steve Jenison, the former medical director of the New Mexico medical cannabis program.
“We have a big problem in America today with opiates being widely prescribed for chronic pain with in fact not very good evidence that opiates are good at the management of chronic pain,” Jenison said. “So we’re really struggling for finding other ways of providing relief to people that have less problems than opiates – less of an addiction problem and better results.”
The 2016 annual report on the medical marijuana program, published Wednesday by the state Department of Health, shows more than 4,000 patients currently in the program qualify because of severe or chronic pain. That’s second only to those qualifying for intractable skeletal spasticity.
But they’re only eligible because it is related specifically to cancer or AIDS, said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey.
“There are just so many conditions that cause chronic pain, and marijuana is not only effective for chronic pain, but it’s safer than opiates, prescribed opiates and even many of the over-the-counter analgesics that are used for chronic pain,” Wolski said.
Ricardo Rivera, of Oaklyn, whose daughter is enrolled in the medical marijuana program, said it could have helped his late sister, Matilda Candelaria, who died of a heroin overdose 18 months ago. She got hooked on opioids 20 years earlier, at age 12, after foot surgery.
“I had asked her, ‘Why are you doing heroin now.’ She said ‘h’ was a lot easier to find, much cheaper, and it helped relieve her pain, something that the prescription drugs couldn’t do,” Rivera said.
Marco Esquandolas of Woodbury, who said marijuana is helping in treating his pain from sciatica, said it’s “just plain ignorant” to ignore the benefits to patients in pain.
“If our governor really wanted to eliminate the opiate epidemic in our state, he would get behind any pro-marijuana legislation in the state instead of being a hindrance that has ultimately led to more pain and more suffering by our brothers and sisters, each and every day,” Esquandolas said.
“My access to marijuana has to be done in secret, in hiding, with the stigma that I’m breaking the law every time I purchase medicine that is legally permitted to be dispensed for symptoms similar to mine in so many other states,” he said. “Legal access to medical marijuana is giving people like myself options and safer choices for treatment without fear of incarceration or simply wanting to have a better quality of life.”
Escandolas used to live in Colorado and was a medical marijuana patient there. Neluna is moving to Colorado next year to avoid the “really frustrating” need to buy marijuana illegally.
“It’s really troubling. I put myself at risk, but I also put others at risk, depending on if I can’t drive that day, who has to take me to go do it, who is risking their lives? You can get your license taken away,” Neluna said.
A decision on expanding the program won’t come until perhaps the end of the year.
Public comments are being accepted by the state through March 8. The review panel will then hold another meeting, where it will adopt initial recommendations, beginning another 60-day comment period.
Once those recommendations are final, Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett would then have 180 days to decide whether to accept them.
Review panel members appeared sympathetic to the patients who testified Wednesday, but it’s ultimately not their call, Wolski said.
“I feel confident that the panel is going to enter this with an open mind,” Wolski said. “But the final decision is a political decision that’s going to be made by the commissioner of the Department of Health, so I’m less confident that the commissioner is going to look favorably on the panel recommendations.”