What will happen to medical marijuana if NJ legalizes weed?

By Nicole Leonard for Press of Atlantic City

“Adult use laws do not create access for pediatric patients living with conditions such as epilepsy, cancer and other conditions,” - Debbie Churgai

New Jersey took a step closer to legalizing recreational marijuana last week when legislators in Trenton advanced a bill that will allow adult use of marijuana.

And while advocates push forward with that agenda amid opposition, some among the 36,500 residents and 800 doctors participating in the state’s growing medical marijuana program wonder how they might be affected if recreational use is legalized.

“My feeling is that the medical program will just expand as people and physicians will become more comfortable with it,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana — New Jersey.

One of the first things Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration did earlier this year was adopt recommendations for expanding the medical marijuana program by lowering costs to patients and adding a list of new medical conditions accepted by the program.

The expansion has caused the number of patients to nearly double and about 300 more licensed physicians have joined the program, according the state Department of Health.

The Health Department is currently reviewing 146 applications submitted to open new medical marijuana cultivation and dispensing centers that would help meet demand.

Ideas that the medical program and its expansion efforts will become obsolete if marijuana is legalized for recreational use are unfounded as it will remain the only access point to marijuana that is guaranteed to be overseen by doctors and other medical professionals, Wolski said.

“You have physicians supervising on the medical side, and there will always be people who are not comfortable taking any kinds of medications unless their physicians know about it,” he said. “And with a tightly regulated medical program, we can expect a tightly regulated recreational program.”

Medical patients may also benefit from price reductions, said Kate Bell, attorney and general counsel to the national Marijuana Policy Project. The recreational marijuana business is expected to create more competition, which is currently lacking in the market with just six medical dispensaries.

Medical marijuana prices remain high — daily menus show that the cost for a quarter ounce of bud or flower ranges from $90 to $120, depending on the dispensary.

Lower prices for medical patients would be encouraging, Bell said, as products are not covered under health insurance due to federal law. Some South Jersey patients have said they’ve struggled to afford the amount of medical marijuana they need.

One of the biggest and most important reasons for sustaining and expanding the medical marijuana program is the use of it by the state’s youngest and sickest residents, experts said. The proposed recreational-use bill in New Jersey prohibits use by people younger than 21.

“Adult use laws do not create access for pediatric patients living with conditions such as epilepsy, cancer and other conditions,” said Debbie Churgai, deputy director of Americans for Safe Access, a national advocacy group.

Some experts foresee a slowing in growth of the medical program and other possible issues in the long run.

“Medical sales can be expected to decrease eventually, based on what we’ve seen in states with a mature medical cannabis program and adult use,” Bell said, “since some patients simply will not want to jump through the hoops necessary to become registered patients or won’t want to be on a government list, even though they generally get a tax break.”

The Seattle Times reported last month that medical marijuana patients and growers were leaving Oregon’s medical program, established in 1998, due to the convenience of recreational retail sales. The number of registered medical patients statewide dropped 41 percent in a year.

Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, a law that also allows people to grow their own cannabis.

Churgai said recreational use can also affect the quantity of marijuana available, where it will be in demand on both the recreational and medical platforms. Some businesses may be licensed to sell to both.

“A patients’ ability to access and maintain a steady supply of medical cannabis could also be an issue,” she said. “Patients also may be less likely to find high CBD varieties or other varying cannabinoid profiles that can better treat certain conditions.”

Overall, Wolski said, if the state’s medical marijuana program is to continue and succeed, there needs to be more training and education for the medical community on the benefits of marijuana for patients.

“We need to stimulate physicians to learn more about it. Doctors and others are ignoring this because it’s not taught in medical or pharmacology school,” said Wolski, a registered nurse. “I really think since the start of the medical program, we’ve seen some of the sickest members of society benefit from marijuana therapy.”