New medical marijuana bill would open the door for more N.J. patients

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New legislation designed to "significantly increase" access to New Jersey's medical marijuana program would allow more dispensaries and cultivation centers to open and permit more medical professionals to refer their patients, NJ Advance Media has learned.

The bill was introduced Tuesday by Sens. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, in response to Gov. Phil Murphy's call to reform New Jersey's medical marijuana program. 

Vitale told NJ Advance Media the bill would allow the Department of Health to expand the medical marijuana program by issuing licenses to new dispensary operators to meet the increased patient demand.

 "It is our belief that this legislation will significantly increase access for patients, caregivers and providers, and additional forms of medical marijuana that may better suit a patient's need," Vitale said.

"Among other elements, it will also establish workable permitting guidelines based on patient need and further ensuring new businesses will be able to enter the marketplace and remain viable. Increasing patient access and care is the cornerstone of our proposed new law." 

New Jersey currently has just five open dispensaries, with a sixth -- Harmony Foundation in Secaucus -- set to open in the coming weeks pending final approval from the health department. There are about 20,200 registered patients.

The bill would take several other big steps: 

  • Raise the monthly allowed amount of medical marijuana from 2 ounces to 2.5 ounces in 2019 and three ounces in 2020;
  • Remove the limit on how much medical pot terminally ill patients and hospice patients can receive;
  • Remove the ban on edible medical pot to minors;
  • Permit multiple written instructions for patients authorizing up to a 180-day supply at one time, up from 90 days;
  • Allow patients to receive medical cannabis from any dispensary, known as Alternative Treatment Centers;
  • Permit two designated caregivers for patients, with the ability to petition the state for additional caregivers;
  • Remove the requirement for a psychiatric evaluation of minors prior to enrollment. 

Murphy in January ordered a 60-day review of the medical marijuana program. A report issued by the  health department in late March provided a slew of recommendations.

Some could be accomplished by changing  regulations, like allowing current operators to open satellite locations. One dispensary has already been allowed to open up a new location following Murphy's executive order. 

Other recommendations, such as allowing new operators, require legislation.

The Vitale bill would also set guidelines for doses of medical pot, and protect medical marijuana patients when it comes to employment, housing and education -- as well as patients and caregivers enrolled in out-of-state programs.

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Vitale said the proposed legislation would allow patients enrolled in other state programs to possess medical cannabis obtained from out-of-state, but it wouldn't permit them to purchase it from a New Jersey dispensary. 

This bill also seeks to put into law another recommendation from the health department report: that physicians no longer be required to register with the state in order to be able to recommend and prescribe cannabis.

Vitale's bill goes a step farther by including any medical professional who is able to write prescriptions for controlled substances -- including advanced practice nurses and physician assistants.

Before the expansion of the medical program, there were only 536 doctors on the state's list of who could recommend marijuana out of the 28,000 licensed doctors in New Jersey.

Vitale said the proposed legislation leaves much of the decision-making on  licenses for cultivation, manufacturing and retail up to the Department of Health.

However, he said, this bill does require 15 percent of licenses be set aside for women-owned, minority-owned and veteran-owned businesses. 

A cannabis advocate and a dispensary operator praised the bill, which they said will undoubtedly expand access to deserving patients.

"What is in this bill is what advocates have been asking for over the last eight years," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, referring to Gov. Chris Christie's administration. The restrictions, such as requiring patients to get doctor approval every three months, "are ridiculous, done for political, not medical reasons."

Julio Valentin of Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, the state's first medical dispensary to open in 2012, said allowing patients six months instead of three months between doctor visits will save patients money.

Letting all medical professionals legally permitted to write prescriptions to also recommend marijuana "is helping patients by giving them access to an alternative to opioids," Valentin said    

Both Scotti and Valentin questioned why the bill would only gradually allow patients to buying up to 3 ounces by 2020. 

"The whole point is to keep people from the illegal market, and at 3 ounces, depending upon their medical condition, they are still going to run out," Scotti said.  

Valentin also suggested the state give the existing dispensaries a chance to expand and meet the demand before new players are admitted to the program.

The health department has permitted Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge to open a satellite location, state spokeswoman Donna Leusner said. The dispensary's General Manager Aaron Epstein confirmed he is seeking local approval for a location in Union Township in Union County.

The department also has approved a dispensary expansion for Compassionate Sciences at its same location in Bellmawr, she said.

Vitale said he expects there will be some changes to the bill as it proceeds through the legislative process. 

Another bill seeking to expand the medical marijuana program was introduced in the Assembly, but sources familiar with the process say it isn't likely to move forward because Vitale's bill was written in collaboration with the Murphy administration. 

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