Transforming NJ’s Medical Cannabis Program into America’s Best

“New Jerseyans whose lives could be improved through the state’s medical marijuana program deserve better access.”    -Gov Phil Murphy

(Trenton) — NJ Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order yesterday vowing to improve NJ’s medical cannabis program. NJ’s costly, over-reguated medical cannabis market lagged under Chris Christie, a staunch prohibitionist.  Murphy’s executive order triggered a review of NJ’s medical marijuana program by the Department of Health who’ll issue a report addressing the program’s shortcomings within 60 days.

“The system we have inherited can best be described as medical marijuana in name only, rather than in reality,” Gov Murphy said at yesterday’s presser. “With a hostile Christie administration tugging the strings of state bureaucracy, the ability of dispensaries to open has been slow-footed, doctors have faced stigmatization for participating, and non-smokable and edible products that could benefit patients have been blocked from the market.”

Howell’s Mike and Janet Honig were on hand to witness Murphy’s push for reform. Their son Jake lost his battle with brain cancer last weekend. He was 7 years old. Jake used cannabis to manage his pain and to stimulate his appetite.

Discussions to improve NJ’s medical cannabis program were underway before Jake’s tragic death. But this loss reminds us that this is a medical program for people who are very sick and who sometimes die. Lest we confuse this particular discussion with with the larger debate to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

The Health Department now has 60 days to issue their findings. But let’s face it: two months is a long time for someone who’s terminally ill. There’s a sense of urgency here as Jake Honig’s passing reminds us. So let’s give NJ officials a running start with this cheat-sheet outlining how to make our medical cannabis program the nation’s best.

Insurance Coverage. If insurance companies want to operate in NJ, they should be required to cover cannabis therapy for sick people. An ounce of medical cannabis in NJ sets you back roughy $350 (plus tax.) Thanks to federal regulations and Pres. Trump’s hostile attorney general, these transactions are still a cash-only enterprise. No ATM cards, no AMEX. And definitely no insurance coverage. Which means thousands of people all over NJ are paying thousands of dollars every year out of pocket for their meds.

The cash-only policy is a barrier. Even for folks who aren’t low-income. Insurance coverage would enable cashless transactions. And most of all, it low-income folks get their meds.

Cannabis Therapy for Opiates. Full disclosure: I smoke medical cannabis because I’m HIV positive. I’m also an former IV drug users who smoked a lot of cannabis while detoxing off the hard stuff that was killing me. Mostly meth in my case but plenty of crack cocaine and opiates too. Cannabis therapy while detoxing was immensely helpful for me. There are many reasons I’m not shooting drugs anymore. That’s one of them.

Allowing heroin addicts to access cannabis therapy might seem radical at first. But considering NJ’s insatiable appetite for opiates like heroin and Vicodin, radical, novel approaches are way past due.

Nix the Sales Tax.  New Jersey’s the only state in America that levies taxes on medical marijuana sales. The Murphy administration can lower prices immediately by eliminating the sales tax provision. A 7% tariff on all medical cannabis sales was not part of NJ’s original medical cannabis law. That came later from the same Chris Christie who campaigned for office by promising smaller government.

Let’s not wait 60 days to lower taxes! Let’s do that now! Because in the meantime, sales taxes on medical marijuana in NJ will epitomize big government run amok.

Nix the Fees. it costs $200 for a state-issued medical cannabis permit. These IDs must be renewed every two years. If a patient designates a caretaker, that’s another $200. Two hundred dollars feels greedy. Especially after all those out-of-pocket costs. And taxes. And doctor visits.

If compassion matters, getting a medical marijuana ID card in NJ should be free. And if someone’s so gravely ill that they require a caretaker, that card should be free too.

Nix the Medical Maze. Here’s a plan: anyone who qualifies for NJ’s medical cannabis program (i.e. anyone with a qualifying ailment) sends a letter of diagnosis from their doc to the Health Department who’ll in turn issue a medical cannabis ID card. No need to visit a special doctor who’s on a special database who might require 12 additional visits a year. Let’s keep it simple: if you’re diagnosed with a disease on NJ’s list of qualifying conditions, you’re in.

Again, we’re dealing with sick people who deserve compassion. Not arbitrary roadblocks.

Nix the 2 ounce limit. At first blush, 2 oz sounds like a lot. And for many cannabis patients, that’s enough to make due. But the Honig family (on hand for Murphy’s executive order) proves that an arbitrary 2 oz limit is insufficient for the most dire cases.  It takes 6 ounces of medical grade cannabis to make enough cannabis oil concentrate for someone like Jake Honig.  We honor Jake’s legacy by ensuring that sick people in NJ can access however much medical cannabis they need.

Home Delivery. This is a sick population we’re dealing with. A more compassionate approach permits home delivery for patients who want it or need it.

Home-grow. The most impactful change the Murphy administration could make is a provision allowing patients to grow their own medical cannabis. This is the holy grail of medical marijuana reform. Not only does this give patients maximum liberty and flexibility, permitting homegrown medical cannabis eliminates barriers to access like cost, fees, taxes, distance to dispensary, et al. The homegrow topic was conspicuously absent from the governor’s remarks yesterday. So if it happens, it’s because patients and advocates fought like hell to make home-grow a reality.

Reforming NJ’s marijuana laws was a critical tenet of Phil Murphy’s campaign to replace Chris Christie. Murphy never shied from the topic out on the trail, notable given the stark contrast to his predecessor on the issue. Phil Murphy promised to reform our state’s cannabis laws. And yesterday’s executive order to fix NJ’s badly broken medical cannabis program is a massive downpayment on that commitment.

Jay Lassiter’s award-winning podcast HEROIN UNCUT, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CRISIS is on iTunes and Google Play.  You can binge-watch Season 1 in less than 3 hours. If you’re a lawmaker or a chief of staff or a legislative aide, this especially means you!












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