More than 150,000 New Jersey residents who suffer from chronic pain, migraines, Tourette syndrome, or anxiety related to autism or Alzheimer's disease could become eligible to use medical marijuana if the state's health commissioner adopts the far-reaching recommendations issued by a panel of doctors Thursday.
The Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel voted, 5-1, to open the door to many more patients beyond those who have been diagnosed with one of a dozen conditions that qualify under the state's medical marijuana law and a recent statute that added post-traumatic stress syndrome to the list. Thursday was the first time the panel, appointed last year, took a public vote on expansion of the program.
The state that is widely considered to be one of the most restrictive of the 29 that have medical marijuana programs. Gov. Christie inherited the seven-year-old program and often said he opposed expanding it because he views it as a back door to legalization.
When the panel voted Thursday at the War Memorial in Trenton, it broke ground by including ailments rarely listed as qualifying conditions in the other states with medical marijuana programs. The panel recommended that autism and opioid addiction disorder become eligible for cannabis treatment when they are related to anxiety, in the case of autism, and chronic pain, for the disorder.
Pennsylvania, which plans to roll out its program next year, is one of the few states that list autism.
Currently, New Jersey allows patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other ailments to use cannabis.
"I believe there's sufficient evidence that medicinal marijuana helps the condition of chronic pain," said Alex Bekker, who chairs the New Jersey panel and heads the department of anesthesiology at Rutgers-Newark.
The panel is proposing that chronic pain be added to list when it is related to a broad range of ailments, including opioid use disorder, arthritis, back and neck pain, sciatica, diabetes, surgeries, injuries, neuropathy, Lyme disease, lupus, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatitis, and others.
Some of the other states with medical marijuana laws allow doctors to determine which ailments qualify for treatment, but many list specific conditions. Nineteen include chronic pain or conditions that would include chronic pain, which is defined by the Cleveland Clinic as pain that lasts longer than six months.
Pennsylvania is among the states that mention chronic pain in their programs.
Bekker said the panel's decisions were "not arbitrary" and were made after the members reviewed the literature and the petitions submitted last summer by 68 people who suffered from various ailments. The panel also weighed the accounts of the more than 20 people who testified in February that marijuana helped alleviate their illnesses, he said.
"We based our decision on evidence, and available literature, and the compelling and heartwrenching stories of the people," Bekker said.
Bekker also pointed to statistics in which Colorado reported a 30 percent drop in opiate overdoses after marijuana was approved for chronic pain. Colorado is also one of four states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use and have programs in place.
Nationwide polls now show a majority of people favor the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana. The most recent is a Franklin and Marshall Poll, released Thursday, in which 56 percent of Pennsylvanians supported legalization.
In February, a Quinnipiac poll found 59 percent of Americans favored full legalization and 93 percent supported medical marijuana.
Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition of Medical Marijuana New Jersey and a longtime advocate, said the vote by the New Jersey panel means 150,000 to 200,000 chronic pain patients could qualify if their doctors granted approval. "This would really open this up. … This is exciting news," said Wolski, a registered nurse.
In New Jersey, there are 11,659 qualified patients, primarily adults, participating in the medical marijuana program. The state has five licensed dispensaries.
Jim Miller, a cofounder of the coalition, said he, too, was "very pleased" with the panel's action. Before the vote was taken, he urged the panel to consider that the "hundreds of testimonials from patients who have said marijuana reduced their opioid use. ... We want to keep people from becoming addicted, and cannabis can play a role."
After the vote, Petros Levounis, a doctor on the panel, declined to comment on why he alone voted no. He shook his head and looked away.
Mary Johansen, a registered nurse and a clinical associate professor with a doctorate from Rutgers-Newark, said she voted yes after examining the evidence and research. "I think it's an enlightened step," she said, that would "benefit patients."
Bekker said Tourette was the only condition that had little scientific evidence to support that cannabis might help. "A lot is anecdotal," he said. "But there is no treatment for Tourette's, so it would be humane to the people who claim it helps them to allow them to use it."
The panel rejected two ailments -- asthma and chronic fatigue -- that the petitioners had suggested. Bekker said there was no evidence to show cannabis might help those conditions.
He said that the public would have 60 days to comment on the panel's action, which will be posted on the health department's website.
After that, the panel's recommendation will be forwarded to Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett, who will have the final say. Bennett appointed the panel a year ago.
Dawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for the health department, said Bennett would have no comment on the panel's vote.
As for when the decision might be made, Thomas said: "We expect to have the final agency decision before the end of the year."