State Registration Starts for New Jersey Medical Marijuana Patients, Serious Access Questions Remain

Last week, the New Jersey State Department of Health (DOH) began the process of issuing identification cards to qualifying medical marijuana patients. While this represents progress, it’s been slow in coming. The “New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act,” which was signed into law in January 2010, is far from bring fully implemented. At a press conference held last Thursday by the Coalition for Medical Marijuana--New Jersey at the State House in Trenton, patients and advocates addressed the status of the law. In a written statement, CMMNJ Executive Director Ken Wolski, RN said:
We are glad to see that the patient registration process has finally gotten started.  There are significant hurdles for patients to contend with, however, and it remains to be seen how successful this program will be.

Some of the hurdles for patients include restricted access to physicians registered to recommend marijuana, a burdensome and expensive process for obtaining a mandatory ID card, and an inadequate supply of medical marijuana in the state.

Lack of registered physicians

The New Jersey law requires that medical marijuana patients have a bona fide doctor-patient relationship with a physician who is registered with the DOH. Unfortunately, only about 150 out of more than 30,000 licensed physicians have so far registered to recommend medical marijuana. This amounts to less than one percent of New Jersey’s physicians who are able to recommend medical marijuana. Once physicians have registered with the state, they’re given a Reference Number, which is supposed to be used by qualifying patients in order to obtain their ID card.

Vanessa Waltz of Princeton, who has stage III breast cancer, wants to use marijuana in order to reduce her pharmaceutical intake. However, she’s running up against a lack of registered physicians.
I’ve looked at the doctors who have signed up already; there isn’t one near me.

Burdensome and expensive process for patients

In order to begin the registration process, patients must have a Reference Number from a qualified physician. Patients must also have computer access and an email address to complete the registration, but can be assisted by their doctor. Government-issued photo ID, proof of New Jersey residency, and a passport-style photograph are all required to register as a patient. All documents must be converted to digital format and uploaded to the DOH website.

After the DOH has reviewed the documentation, patients are prompted to submit a mandatory fee of $200 for a two-year period. If patients are receiving government assistance, they can register for $20, but must provide proof of such assistance.

Jay Lassiter, a New Jersey resident living with HIV, called the registration process “burdensome,” and asked how people who are “literally at deaths door…[not] able to even get out of bed” are supposed to deal with the “bureaucratic and financial hurdles.” Commenting on Governor Chris Christie’s implementation of the law, Lassiter said:
[I]t’s hard to imagine a governor bumbling a program…worse than Christie has done here.

Alternative Treatment Centers

According to New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, patients or their registered caregiver must obtain medical marijuana from a licensed Alternative Treatment Center (ATC). However, only six ATCs are allowed to operate in a state that covers more than 7,800 square miles. Although patients must designate the ATC they will use to obtain their medication, none are currently dispensing marijuana. Two ATCs have approved locations, one of which -- the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair -- is expected to begin dispensing this fall, but the other four are in land use battles with local zoning officials.

It’s unclear whether six ATCs will be sufficient to meet the demand of New Jersey patients or if the burden of getting to one of them will pose insurmountable problems. On top of that, questions remain about the ability of ATCs to produce medical marijuana of acceptable potency. New Jersey resident Colleen Begley uses medical marijuana for anxiety and as an appetite stimulant to counteract the side effects of another drug she takes. Begley told NBC News:
I don’t think anybody in their right mind would want to go and pay anything more than what hay is worth in New Jersey.

Fate of New Jersey’s Law?

Some advocates are concerned that the array of obstacles preventing physicians and patients from participating in New Jersey’s medical marijuana law may force an untold number of otherwise qualifying patients to do without or get it from the illicit market. Either way, Governor Christie is making participation in the “New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act” much more difficult, a sign that patients and their supporters will have to continue lobbying elected officials in order to effectively implement the law.