Just days before a review of New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is due on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, the Assembly health committee voted Thursday for a plan that would significantly overhaul the program.

The bill would boost the number of medical marijuana dispensaries from six – including one that’s approved but not yet open – to 40. It would double the number of growing locations to 12, allow patients to buy 4 ounces a month, not 2, and allow any doctor to prescribe it for any condition.

Asseemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, said the 8-year-old program has too many bureaucratic hurdles.

“What we’re doing is lifting the restrictions and putting it in the patients’ and doctors’ hands,” Gusciora said.

Under the bill, the state would stop charging patients $200 to be enrolled in the program, end a registry for doctors who want to prescribe marijuana and allow any patient, not just kids, to obtain edible medicines.

Proponents for medical marijuana came to the Statehouse prepared to oppose the bill expanding for not going far enough but stood down when it an amended version of the plan was announced that significantly increased the number of dispensaries.

Some urged lawmakers to be even more aggressive. Peter Rosenfeld of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey says doubling the number of cultivation facilities would help to increase the limited supply but that the number of patients would increase too rapidly to keep up.

“By the end of the year, we’ll have triple the number of patients, to about 45,000, 50,000. Chronic pain especially is going to double the number of patients almost immediately,” said Rosenfeld, who suggested allowing 18 growing facilities and to revisit the number again in two years.

Those 12 growing centers would provide medicine to the 40 proposed dispensaries, and Rosenfeld says that arrangement would keep the price high. It’s currently around $400 an ounce, the nation’s most expensive.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, said solution to ensuring people can have the strains they need, at a cost they can afford, is to let them grow it at home.

“That is lacking, and we have not given up on that,” Wolski said.

Forget it for now, said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington.

“That’s a bridge too far,” he said. “That was in the original legislation that came up and at least at the time – I’m not saying that no one in the Legislature favors that, but don’t look for that any time soon.”

The bill advanced through the Assembly health committee with support from Democrats, though the panel’s Republican either voted against it or to abstain.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, asked whether lifting all limits on the medical conditions that qualify for marijuana prescriptions would inadvertently create a new health crisis.

“We’re a heavily overmedicated society to begin with,” Schepisi said. “People who need it, absolutely, let’s make sure they get it. But let’s also make sure that we have proper protocols and procedures so that we aren’t creating opioid crisis, part two.”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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 michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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