A week after the New Jersey State Assembly passed bills that would require the Health Department to improve the troubled medical-marijuana program and consider adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of ailments that qualify for the drug, the health commissioner announced Wednesday that she will convene a group of medical experts to make recommendations on whether to expand the list.
Currently, patients who suffer one of about a dozen ailments and diseases - including terminal cancer, HIV-AIDs, seizure disorder, and multiple sclerosis - are eligible to get a photo identification card to purchase medical marijuana from one of the state's three dispensaries.
A month ago, Commissioner Mary O'Dowd, who is part of Gov. Christie's cabinet, rejected a petition filed by Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, to add PTSD to the ailments. "We feel sorry for the veterans who are committing suicide . . . when medical marijuana could help them," Wolski said.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, O'Dowd said she would let the regulatory process play out before determining whether any new conditions should be added. "I will wait for the petitions to come in and the guidance and recommendation of the panel," she said.
When asked how long this may take, Dawn Thomas, a spokeswoman, told The Inquirer that "the department is at the beginning of the process and has contacted the Board of Medical Examiners and the Medical Society to discuss next steps." She said the commissioner will appoint a panel of up to 15 health-care professionals and then will begin accepting petitions to add ailments to the list.
"We are guardedly optimistic," Wolski said. "We really don't think there will be any significant expansion of the program during Chris Christie's administration of the program. I think we are simply going through the motions and it's all an exercise in futility."
Medical marijuana was legalized five years ago as one of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's last official acts, and when Christie was elected, he said he would have never signed the bill. Since then, the program has been plagued by delays and patients have complained it is too restrictive and expensive to offer them the relief they need.
After holding annual hearings and listening to the testimony of patients and dispensary operators, the Assembly last week passed several bills to force the Health Department to make several changes in its implementation of the program.
"The purpose of this entire program is to provide relief to critically ill patients, not impose additional burdens on those who are already suffering," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer/Hunterdon). "Instead, many of these regulations have proven counterproductive because they unnecessarily restrict access to medical marijuana for those who need it most."
Action is pending in the Senate.
O'Dowd said in the Associated Press interview that patients who can be helped by marijuana generally are able to get it now.
But Wolski said at least 100,000 who suffer from chronic pain from severe injuries or degenerative diseases would get relief from marijuana if the program was expanded. "Right now they are giving these people OxyContin, which is much worse than taking marijuana for pain," he said.
On Wednesday, the Health Department said in its second annual report on the program that so far more than 3,600 people in New Jersey have purchased marijuana, starting in December 2012, when the first dispensary opened in Montclair.
There were about 20,000 total sales of 800 pounds of 33 different strains of the drug, which is still considered to be illegal under federal law. New Jersey is one of 22 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical-marijuana sales.