NJ’s Medical Cannabis Program. Still Broken but (slightly) Less Unethical

Gopal

Writing about NJ’s badly beleaguered medical cannabis program usually feels like beating a dead horse. How many ways are there to describe the costliest, most bureaucratically onerous medical cannabis program in the nation?

Notably, medical cannabis in NJ costs a fortune, up to $520/ounce. And thanks to former Gov Chris Christie, whose administration set up NJ’s medical cannabis program, many onerous regulations are still on the books.

That said, it feels good to know that NJ’s medical marijuana program just got a bit less unethical.

NJ’s State Board of Medical Examiners has suspended the license of Dr Andrew Medvedovsky for operating the pot version of a pill mill.

According to media reports, “Medvedovsky failed to take a medical history from patients or did not examine them before approving the use of medical marijuana. The board also directed Medvedovsky to complete courses in medical ethics and recordkeeping.”

Jo Anne Zito is among the most respected cannabis activists in NJ. She noted the conundrum faced by thousands of patients forced to visit unethical docs to comply with NJ’s wacky rules.

“Although I dislike the money aspect of all of this, the state would not have built its patient base it has in the last 2 years, which the state makes revenue off of, without him,” Ms Zito said.

Certification

In most states, qualifying for medical cannabis is straight forward: you get a letter of diagnosis from your own doctor and send it to your state’s health department. If everything checks out, your cannabis ID arrives 3-5 business days later.

Until recently, NJ required all patents to re-certify their qualifying condition with a special doctor curated by the state every 30-, 60-, or 90 days depending on the doc’s discretion.

When Gov Murphy nixed the 30/60/90 day mandate in favor of yearly certification, patients roared their approval. But the ‘extra doctor as gatekeeper’ part remains on the books.

I’ve been whining about the “extra doc” hurdle for ages including directly to NJ’s Health Commissioner in 2018.

“There’s a certain pot doc in south Jersey, let’s call him ‘Dr. Bop,’ whose caseload is well over 3,300 patients. Do that math: 3300 patients pay $100 cash an average of 6 times per years and you’ve got a very rich doctor netting $1,980,000 annually.”

I called him “Dr Bop” because the word BOP looks like the Russian word for thief.

Medvedovsky is Russian.

I visited “Dr. Bop” once around this time last year. He’s close by and I wanted to streamline since this is a recurring thing. And while his office looked the part, it just didn’t feel …. medical. They didn’t weigh me or take my temperature or pulse. No flu shot. No talk of my appetite or other symptoms. Just some very brief smalltalk, a quick good bye, pay the lady at the desk — cash only — and we’re back in compliance for another 30-, 60-, or 90 days.

On our last visit, Medvedovsky inability to name my qualifying condition confirmed my worst suspicions: NJ’s regulatory climate was just right for shady docs to get rich off the backs of sick people.

That’s still true.

Even with Medvedovsky on the sidelines.

Home Cultivation of cannabis 

NJ could solve most of its medical marijuana problems (long lines, high prices) by letting patients grow their own cannabis as permitted in most other states.

The NJ Senate passed a bill that included home cultivation back in 2010. Two things stand out from that whip count: 1) most of the senators who voted that day are still around and 2) NJ Senator Tom Kean, who’s running for Congress by trying to convince voters he’s a moderate, voted NO on medical cannabis (which is the opposite of moderate for anyone keeping score.)

But barriers to home cultivation emerged quickly in the Assembly. Then and now, Dr Herb Conaway chairs the Assembly Health Committee, through which all things medical cannabis-related must pass.

Conaway refused to hold hearings on a bill that included home cultivation. He also demanded the removal of chronic pain as a qualifying condition. And just like that a vastly inferior, watered-down version of medical cannabis was born.

COVID brought a sense of urgency to a letter recently circulated by Senator Vin Gopal urging NJ’s Senate Health Committee to revisit the home cultivation debate.

“Throughout the Public Health State of Emergency, I’ve heard from numerous constituents about the challenges they have faced accessing their much-needed medicine,” Senator Gopal said.”With record-breaking unemployment numbers, many patients can no longer afford the prohibitively expensive medicine… Others are immunocompromised and do not wish to risk exposure at the dispensary. 

And in the meantime, eliminating the “extra doctor” requirement is the very least that Trenton could do.

The legislature and the health department should be in a race to address these remaining barriers before November when, according to Senator Gopal, “patients anticipate that access problems will only worsen should recreational adult-use marijuana be approved on the ballot this November.”

Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer living on Cherry Hill, NJ. He gets his cannabis from the black market. 

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