Here’s the timeline for NJ’s possible expansion of medical marijuana
It will probably still be a few months, and possibly well into next spring, before a decision is made on expanding New Jersey’s medical marijuana program to cover a range of additional conditions.
A public comment period ended Monday regarding the initial recommendation from the Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel that people with additional conditions be eligible for the program. Roughly 65 comments were received, “overwhelmingly in favor” of the proposal, said Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
But that sets in motion another process. First the comments are reviewed, a process that took around two months when the initial recommendations were being made. Then the review panel must meet to make a final recommendation. Then the health commissioner has up to 180 days to make a decision.
One more complication: Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett is leaving in approximately six weeks. The New Jersey Hospital Association announced Tuesday that Bennett would take over as its president and chief executive officer on Nov. 9.
“It’s just more evidence that there’s not going to be any significant expansion of the medicinal marijuana program during the Christie administration,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.
“The expert panel approved these panels to expand the program greatly, but the commissioner has six months to act on those final recommendations, so certainly nothing’s going to happen during the Christie administration,” he said.
New Jersey’s medical marijuana program took effect in 2010. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Department of Health solicited petitions on ways to expand it.
Even before Bennett’s departure was announced, Wolski said he thought a final decision wouldn’t be made until after the next governor takes office in January. He’s even more skeptical that the acting commissioner who take over temporarily will decide the issue.
“I really can’t see an acting commissioner that makes significant changes to the medicinal marijuana program,” Wolski said. “Actually even the prudent thing to do from their point of view would probably be to wait until the new governor appoints a new commissioner.”
There are 14,639 patients currently registered in the medical marijuana program, 667 caregivers and 492 physicians. Patients or their caregivers can buy marijuana from five approved dispensaries; a fifth has been approved to start growing marijuana in Secaucus but hasn’t yet been allowed to open.
Currently, there are 11 debilitating conditions that qualify a person for medical marijuana. The review panel suggests adding chronic pain, migraines, anxiety, Tourette syndrome and others, though it opted against petitions asking that asthma and chronic fatigue be included.
“We’re on the verge really of a tremendous expansion of the medical marijuana program,” Wolski said.
One of the 11 qualifying conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, was added by the Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie, who signed the law despite strong opposition to marijuana generally.
“I don’t see him as an opponent of this program, but I see the pace that he is moving at is just glacial,” Wolski said.
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org