As Pennsylvania moves closer to adopting a medical marijuana program, New Jersey has released a report on its six-year-old program that says its dispensaries charge the highest price for an ounce of marijuana on average, compared with other states with similar programs.

The Department of Health report said the five dispensaries operating statewide charge an average of $489 per ounce, about 37 percent more than the average price in Arizona, New Mexico, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island. Most of these states have a cost-of-living index of 10 percent or less than New Jersey, said the report, released this month.

But advocates for medical marijuana patients say the price in New Jersey is actually the highest in the nation, not just in the sampling of states in the report. "Anecdotally, what we are hearing is, New Jersey's is the most expensive. It would have behooved them to do a complete list, to check the prices in all 23 states with a medical marijuana program," said Roseann Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Health Department is required to file biennial reports that, among other things, determine whether the cost of medical marijuana is excessive. "The department should be concerned if patients can't afford the price, because then they will access the illegal market or do without their medication. It's not right for them to be denied medical help they need because of their financial situation," Scotti said.

The Health Department, however, concluded that the price in New Jersey is reasonable, saying it is "comparable with the price in states with similar regulatory models" and is "within 5 and 16 percent of New Jersey black market marijuana." Patients should expect to pay more because the medical marijuana is regulated and tested, the report said.

Michael Nelson, general manager of the Compassionate Sciences dispensary in Bellmawr, Camden County, said the average price reported in the Health Department report does not take into consideration the discounts his facility offers. "We have medicine available for much less," he said, noting the dispensary regularly discounts two of its 14 to 16 strains each month, and also offers reduced pricing for patients on low incomes. On average, he said, the price for these clients is about $300 an ounce. The dispensary opened last September.

Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the Health Department, said some dispensaries "grant discounts to certain customers, such as veterans and patients that receive government assistance. Approximately 48 percent of the patients who participate in the New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Program have received a discount from the department on their registration fee," she said.

Leusner did not respond to a request for comment on why the Health Department did not analyze the average prices at all 23 states with medical marijuana programs.

The Pennsylvania House voted Wednesday to legalize medical marijuana. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate and be signed by Gov. Wolf in the next few weeks. The program could be implemented in a year. The bill calls for patients with cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, intractable seizures, and other conditions to purchase medical marijuana in pill, oil, or ointment form at dispensaries.

In New Jersey, only marijuana buds are approved for sale in the dispensaries. Plans call for oils and lozenges to be sold after the manufacturing processes are approved by the state.

The New Jersey report said that five of the six dispensaries planned for the state are open, including two in South Jersey. Besides the Bellmawr dispensary, the Compassionate Care Foundation operates a facility in Egg Harbor Township near Atlantic City.

The report also said 6,960 patients and 631 caregivers have registered with the program statewide. About 450 physicians also are registered, including 362 that are active. 856-779-3224 @JanHefler