While efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey have stalled, the state’s medicinal pot program has been dramatically expanded.

According to Dr. Shereef Elnahal, commissioner of the state Health Department, the number of patients enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program has doubled, from 17,000 to 34,000 since the beginning of this year.

“That really reflects a lot of hard work from the program in getting more patients in and really meeting pent-up demand," Elnahal said.

One reason for the uptick is that the number of diagnoses has been expanded. Among the five new conditions eligible for medical marijuana are chronic pain, anxiety, migraines and Tourette syndrome.

He said the Health Department has also made it easier for patients to register for the program.

“We’ve added mobile access, we’ve made the interface much more user friendly, and I’ve been going around the state recruiting physicians into the program by giving lectures about the benefits of medical marijuana," he said.

The time it now takes to get a medical marijuana ID card has been cut from four to two weeks.

“I want physicians to view it as yet another therapeutic tool that works for so many conditions that are difficult to treat," the commissioner said.

Since January, 300 doctors have been added to the program, bringing the total to about 800.

He said the expansion of the medical marijuana program can also help address Jersey’s ongoing opioid abuse epidemic, which is on track to cause 3,000 deaths in the Garden State by the end of this year.

“We’ve seen in states that have medical marijuana programs that physicians rely less on opioid treatment for chronic pain. That’s been proven in research," he said.

More than 60 percent of people who are addicted to opioids stated with an opioid prescription.

“We’re also considering medical marijuana as a treatment for opioid addition. We would have it as an add-on therapy, and hopefully we can get more folks who are addicted into recovery," he said.

A final decision on that proposal could come next month.

The health commissioner said there has been a stigma associated with medical marijuana because people often associate it with recreational use, but it’s inappropriate and starting to change.

“There are a lot of studies now that show how it’s effective for treating conditions.”

Currently, six alternative treatment centers are operating in Bellmawr, Cranbury, Egg Harbor Township, Montclair, Secaucus and Woodbridge.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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