Behind the dramatic changes made to New Jersey's medical marijuana program last week was a desire to treat participants as "patients, not criminals," Gov. Murphy said as he announced plans for an immediate overhaul that could open the program to 100,000 or even 200,000 new patients.
Under the stringent rules imposed by his predecessor, Chris Christie, a limited number of patients were permitted to buy cannabis and only six dispensaries were allowed to open across the state, the governor said. To be eligible, a patient had to have one of about a dozen ailments, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma, and could purchase only two ounces a month, under video surveillance.
Enrollment stalled and currently only 18,000 patients participate in the eight-year-old program, Murphy said.
Patients say the changes are long overdue.
"This may help get rid of the stigma surrounding marijuana," said Leah Bakos, a patient from Bellmawr, who attended the governor's announcement in Trenton. "Some people look down on you for using marijuana – they think you are a drug addict. … But when more sick people use it, and get better, the more they will spread the word to their friends, and that may start to change people's minds," she said.
The governor increased the number of qualifying ailments to about 50, adding broad categories such as chronic pain and anxiety to the list. Chronic pain includes arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, opioid addiction disorder, diabetes, and about 30 other conditions, while anxiety is associated with Alzheimer's, autism, and other ailments, according to the Health Department.
A review panel of medical and pharmaceutical experts last year recommended 43 ailments to qualify for cannabis use and grouped them under the broad categories. These recommendations were all adopted, effective immediately. Migraines also appear on the new list.
The governor said he doesn't know how many more people may now be eligible for cannabis but noted that Michigan, which has a population comparable to New Jersey's and which has a less restrictive marijuana program, has about 220,000 cannabis patients. "There will be growing pains" and existing dispensaries may initially struggle to keep up with demand, he said.
Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and executive director of the Coalition of Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said chronic pain alone could qualify an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 new patients if their doctors approve. He said the changes will not only welcome more patients to the program but also will address the problems that patients are experiencing now.
Murphy is also proposing the two-ounce limit per month be doubled.
Bakos, 34, says "opening the floodgates a little bit" will help because patients will have an alternative to addictive drugs to treat their ailments, and then they can "go out and educate others."
Bakos, who turns cannabis into pain creams and edibles to treat severe muscle spasms, said that she did a lot of research before she tried cannabis.
"While some people think marijuana is like heroin, marijuana is not addictive, and no one dies from it," she said.
To increase the supply, the dispensaries will be permitted to apply for satellite retail and cultivation centers and new dispensaries will be allowed to open. More sites mean patients won't have to travel as far to purchase cannabis each month, Murphy said.
South Jersey has two dispensaries — one in Bellmawr, 10 miles from Philadelphia, and one in Egg Harbor Township, near Atlantic City. Compassionate Sciences in Bellmawr offers oils and lotions along with smokable cannabis buds.
Murphy said he also will allow dispensaries to sell other edibles, something Christie vigorously opposed.
Christopher Errickson, a patient from Corbin City, Atlantic County, said lifting the restrictions may also reduce the costs associated with cannabis. He said it currently costs him about $5,000 a year.
Even though Errickson receives a veteran's discount from the dispensaries, he still has to pay about $400 an ounce, on top of an annual $200 state registration fee. He also had to pay about $300 to a doctor on the marijuana registry who required three visits to establish a "bona fide" relationship before he would sign off on a cannabis recommendation.
The governor said the registration fee will be halved, and reduced to $20 for all veterans and senior citizens. Previously, only people receiving public assistance were charged the discounted rate.
Murphy said the program overhaul also may encourage more physicians to participate in the program, further reducing the costs.
Only about 500 of the state's 33,000 licensed medical doctors participate in the program, and some physicians privately say they don't register because there is a stigma to appearing on a public list of cannabis doctors, the governor said. Doctors must still register but having their names appear on the list is no longer mandatory, he said.
Murphy said he hopes this change means more patients will be able to turn to their personal doctors for a cannabis recommendation instead of having to find a doctor on the registry and then paying for extra visits to establish a relationship.
Larry Downs, CEO of the Medical Society of New Jersey, said many doctors have said they did not join the registry because "of the weakness of the evidence in terms of the therapeutic efficacy" of cannabis rather than its stigma. The Medical Society and the American Medical Association have called for more research, he said.
Andrew Medvedovsky, a board-certified neurologist who recommends cannabis to 5,000 of his patients, said these associations are out-of-touch. He supports more research but says he has also found that "cannabis really works" for many patients and is a good alternative to addictive drugs.
One day after the governor's announcement, Medvedovsky said his medical staff at his Moorestown clinic and at his other offices received 100 inquiries and made appointments for 50 new patients. He said statistics show that about one-third of the population in New Jersey suffers from chronic pain.
Erik Costanzo, a marijuana patient from Somerdale, said that he initially balked at using marijuana but decided to give it a try after he had lingering pain following seven back surgeries. "I was nervous about using marijuana in the beginning because of the stigma," he said.
"It works," Costanzo said. "I'm so happy that it will be available to more people who need it."