This week the New Jersey Department of Health issued a report showing that just 3,600 patients have gained access to the medical marijuana program. This is disappointing and should serve as a solid warning to Pennsylvania legislators as they craft a law for the Keystone State.
It has been five years since the NJ Safe Access law was passed. Only three dispensaries have been open for about two years. The low numbers of registered patients are a result of a multiplicity of restrictive regulations created for the program. There should be hundreds of thousands benefiting from the law.
The New Jersey Assembly overwhelmingly passed a series of bills last week to attempt to fix the dysfunctional program and add PTSD as a qualifying condition. The NJ Department of Health is convening a special board to consider adding conditions. But nothing has been approved yet.
That same week I sat in as the Pennsylvania House Health and Judiciary Committees held an information-gathering hearing about medical marijuana in Philadelphia. They were not taking testimony on a specific bill, although one is active in the Senate, SB3. The hearing featured physicians and medical professionals offering widely varying positions on medical cannabis and went on for more than four hours.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society came out against the effort. The society's vice president, Dr. Charles Cutler, at first railed against the effort saying, "There is no compelling reason to legalize medical marijuana."
Cutler has since offered himself out to the media and appeared on talk radio to present some cherry-picked science against marijuana. The PA Medical Society has chosen to ignore the bulk of the scientific evidence (there are truckloads) showing the numerous benefits of cannabis. Ultimately, Cutler said that he supported more research being done on cannabis but hid behind federal law. That did not sit well with the House representatives on the committees.
Rep. Mike Regan, a Republican from Cumberland County and a retired U.S. marshal, asked Cutler why Pennsylvania residents should continue to suffer while more federal research is done.
Rep. Jim Cox, a Republican from Berks County who has been an outspoken supporter of medical marijuana, asked why the Pennsylvania Medical Society was "digging in its heels" on the topic when there are so many well-known detriments of prescription pharmaceuticals. Cutler again cited federal law and limited "gold-standard" trials. Cox went on to say that if he had a child suffering from a severe medical condition, he would break the law right now to provide cannabis therapy.
Cutler was almost alone in his opposition. Other neurologists testified that opiate painkiller overdose deaths have quadrupled in the last decade while there has never been a single overdose death from marijuana.
A different view came from Dr. David Casarett, a physician and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, where the hearing was being held. Casarett said he was surprised to find so much compelling evidence for effective cannabis therapy. He even wrote a book about it due out later this spring called "Stoned: A Doctor's Case for Medical Marijuana."
Dr. Richard Baxter, a pain-management specialist at St. Luke's Hospital, offered more candid testimony. He said that marijuana offered another "tool in the toolbox" for conditions that are difficult to treat with pharmaceuticals, especially neuropathic pain. This is a type of pain experienced by many cancer patients along with those who live with HIV/AIDS and even diabetes. Baxter was also clear that many of his hospice patients are already using marijuana, purchased underground.
Here Baxter hit on the point of passing a medical cannabis law at all: to protect seriously ill patients from arrest and give them access to a safe supply.
New Jersey has failed to fulfill this promise, in part because of a limited list of conditions. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is following an even narrower path.
When the Pa. Senate passed a medical marijuana bill last year, it was watered down to almost nothing. The original bill had a long list of conditions but also allowed physicians to decide to recommend cannabis for any ailment not on the list. But the Senate Appropriations Committee made extensive amendments to the bill. It removed the discretion of physicians and whittled the list of conditions down to just 10. Even HIV/AIDS would no longer qualify.
Pa. legislators went even further, turning a good medical marijuana access bill into an extremely limited cannabis products bill. The Senate's vision for medical marijuana excluded smoking and vaporization, the most common and effective delivery methods. Under the Senate's plan only a few residents would have access to edible oils.
This is especially ironic considering the testimony of Irvin Rosenfeld. He is one of four surviving federally approved medical marijuana patients. Rosenfeld is supplied with 300 marijuana cigarettes every month. He testified, in person, for the Pennsylvania Senate Law and Justice Committee, bringing his fragrant tin of federally grown marijuana with him into the hearing. Rosenfeld testified via Skype during the House hearing last week.
"For 32 years I have been smoking cannabis supplied by the federal government," Rosenfeld told the House committees adding, "I am very lucky to have the right medicine."
The main sponsors of the Pennsylvania medical marijuana bill, Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon, Dauphin and York Counties) and Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Delaware and Montgomery Counties), have promised to expand the bill this year. They also have promised advocates and underground patients that they would come back and fix the bill later of it were to pass with too many restrictions. But the example of New Jersey's failure to improve the program, years later, should compel Pennsylvania to do better.
A limited law will also take years to regulate. The states that tangibly offer safe access to the hundreds of thousands residents (like Michigan, Maine, Washington, Oregon and Arizona) allow for home cultivation. New Jersey's was the first medical marijuana law to exclude personal cultivation. Other states like Delaware and New York have followed.
Rather than forcing patients through a heavily regulated retail environment, growing at home allows quick implementation and access. Home cultivation was in the original concept for the Pennsylvania medical marijuana bill. It needs to come back. Otherwise most patients will stay underground, risking arrest.