Trenton, NJ— Today, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services released draft regulations to implement the state's Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. Advocates, patients and families were quick to decry unnecessary limits placed on the proposed medical marijuana program.
"It seems that the goal of the regulations is to provide the least amount of relief to the least number of patients," said Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey which spearheaded the effort to pass the legislation. "The major problems with the proposed regulations are that they only allow for four locations where patients can access medical marijuana and they place unnecessary restrictions on those locations. Imagine if there were only four pharmacies in the whole state where seriously ill patients could get their medications."
"These proposed regulations go far beyond the already strict limits spelled out in the legislation," said Don McGrath, whose son Sean who died from a rare form of cancer several years ago and used medical marijuana to relieve the symptoms of his disease. "We already had the strictest law in the country. I don't see how the program will be workable with these restrictions." McGrath, who advocated for the legislation for years and testified before the New Jersey Legislature on several occasions, also questioned whether the regulations violated the law and the intent of the legislators who voted for it. "The legislature clearly intended for thereto be at least six locations where medical marijuana would be dispensed. That is the exact language in the bill. But the Department of Health and Senior Services has decided to reduce that number below the minimum required. How is that legal?"
The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was passed in January after five years of intense advocacy by patients, families and advocates and the proposed regulations had been eagerly awaited. The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act will allow patients suffering from certain debilitating and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis to use and possess medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. The bill will also allow for the licensing of Alternative Treatment Centers where qualifying patients could safely access medical marijuana. The program will be administered by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
Earlier this year, Governor Chris Christie asked for a six-month to one-year delay in implementing the legislation. Ultimately, the legislature passed an amendment which allowed for a three-month extension.
The draft regulations call for two Alternative Treatment Centers to grow all the medical marijuana for the state and four Alternative Treatment Centers to distribute the medication. The Alternative Treatment Centers would be chosen through a "Request for Applications" process whereby interested nonprofit organizations would apply to the state under specific guidelines.
The regulations also limit the strains of medical marijuana that can be produced and sold to three each from the two producers, and limit the amount of THC (the main psychoactive substance in medical marijuana) each strain can contain.
"This is appalling and will hurt patients in a big way," said Michael Olivieri, who has muscular dystrophy and uses medical marijuana to treat his symptoms. "There are many stains of medical marijuana and they have different properties. There are different health benefits for each strain. Some are good for sleep, some for pain, some for appetite stimulation. Patients need to be able to access and try the type that works best for their symptoms." Oliveiri, whose family lives in Oradell, moved to California several years ago so that he could legally access medical marijuana. He returned to New Jersey several times during the fight for the legislation to advocate for New Jersey to pass a medical marijuana bill.
Advocates, patients and families also say that the $200.00 fee for a patient registry card is far too expensive and that the $20,000 annual fee to run a non-profit Alternative Treatment Center will be prohibitive.
Advocates also feared that the regulations would so limit the programs that patients would simply turn to the illegal market to get their medical marijuana. "If the state makes it too difficult to access medical marijuana at safe and legal centers, patients and their families will just continue to get medical marijuana on the illegal market—on the street market," said Roseanne Scotti. "We fought for this bill so people would not have to do that. But I'm afraid these regulations will just leave people with no real option."
The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act is supported by a coalition of organizations including the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.