The number of patients in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is now approaching 20,000, but the Department of Health expects that recent expansions of the program will help it grow to 40,000 to 50,000 by June 2019.

In essence, that’d be like expanding from a population the size of Secaucus, Glassboro or Hazlet to that of Bridgewater, Evesham or Plainfield in a little over a year. Growing locations and dispensaries will have added, relatively quickly, to keep up with demand – but state officials say they also want to make sure not to overdo it.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said there needs to be a reasonable cap on the numbers of license holders “so that these facilities can survive economically and so that we don’t have one on every corner like Colorado.”

At a budget hearing Wednesday, Department of Health Deputy Commissioner Jackie Cornell said an evaluation of what’s needed is going on now, with a biennial report on supply and demand due to be released shortly, and that the state will move deliberately.

“We have heard horror stories from the west where we expand too quick and we have too much supply, and we see that only infiltrating into the black market,” Cornell said.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has expanded its medical marijuana program to cover more afflictions, reduced participation fees and plans to allow new locations. Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal told lawmakers the next step is a public awareness campaign to let doctors and patients know that’s happening.

“In addition, I will be talking to medical students, residents and physicians in our medical schools and teaching hospitals later this spring about the clinical benefits of this therapy, to increase awareness among our providers,” Elnahal said.

Elnahal said that in states with marijuana programs, there has been an almost 6 percent drop in opioid prescriptions – 3.7 million fewer daily doses of opioid prescriptions filled. He said that in addition to the administration’s plan to spend $100 million on the opioid epidemic in fiscal 2019, the expansion of medical marijuana should help, even though it’s not yet available as an addiction treatment, by reducing initial exposure to opioids.

“Just by giving medicinal marijuana for that pain, you’re already seeing reduced numbers of folks who are addicted to opioids and dying from opioids,” Elnahal said.

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, said that’s what recovering addicts have said at legislative hearings.

“They thought that instead of medical marijuana itself being a gateway drug, it was a gate. It stopped the addiction,” Murphy said.

Asked by lawmakers about the broader topic of legalizing marijuana, as the governor has proposed to do by year’s end, Elnahal told lawmakers it’s a complex issue and that he appreciates that Murphy has directed his department to focus on expanding its medicinal use.

“I do think that the broad adult-use marijuana agenda is one that it is based on a social-justice issue and one that can be regulated safely if it’s done correctly,” Elnahal said.

Elnahal says his concern is about exposing more children to recreational use of marijuana and that state government would share the goal of limiting it to use by adults, should it be legalized.

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

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