For the first time in the history of the seven-year-old New Jersey medical marijuana program, a health department panel will consider adding chronic pain and other ailments to the list of about a dozen conditions that qualify a patient to use cannabis in the state.
A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22 before a panel of eight doctors, pharmacists, and nurses who were appointed by Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett nearly one year ago. People who submitted petitions to the panel last summer will be invited to testify starting at 10 a.m. at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Dr., Trenton.
The public may also comment, said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the health department.
"I think cannabis can replace all three of the medications I take for anxiety, migraines, and chronic pain," said Bob Kane, 56, a retired landscaper from Ocean View, Cape May County, who submitted three petitions and had his family doctor write letters to the department supporting his request.
Kane said he was not enrolled in the state's marijuana program, but would like to have the option to join it "so that if I choose to make an informed opinion, I can go ahead and augment my therapy with cannabis."
When he tried cannabis in his youth, he said, he discovered it helped alleviate his anxiety.
Kane is among 68 people who sent petitions to the panel. Migraines, autism, lupus, and opiate-addiction disorder were some of the 20 or so ailments mentioned in the petitions.
The medical marijuana program currently allows patients who have terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, glaucoma, and several other conditions to obtain cannabis if their doctors recommend it for treatment.
Under the law that created the program, the public was given the right to petition the health department to expand the list created by the legislature. But Gov. Christie, who inherited the program when he was sworn into office in 2010, said he was against increasing the program and promised to veto any bills that would expand the list or loosen the regulations.
Christie relented in September when he signed a bill that added post-traumatic stress disorder to the list after veterans lobbied for the action. PTSD is a condition that is on the list in several other states, including Pennsylvania, which is implementing a program.
Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, had pressed for PTSD to be included on the list but also said 100,000 patients in the state who suffer from chronic pain should also be able to use cannabis to obtain relief.
More than 10,000 patients are enrolled in the marijuana program. Wolski said he was optimistic about the hearing. "I'm glad it's finally moving along," he said.
The health department said testimony will be limited to three minutes per person.
After the hearing, the panel will post its decision on the department's website and invite public comment for 60 days. The panel will then make recommendations to the commissioner, who will have the final say as to what conditions, if any, are placed on the list.