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Medical Cannabis Program on the Decline in New Jersey

Medical cannabis is at odds with adult-use cannabis industries in most states where recreational cannabis is legal. This is also the case for New Jersey, where its medical cannabis program patient numbers have decreased significantly.

According to a recent report published by the New Jersey Monitor, patients believe that the medical program isn’t being maintained. The news outlet spoke with Michael Wiehl, a local patient, about his concerns. “It’s like they’re not even faking an effort anymore, like feigning interest in saving the program. It just seems like there’s so much more they can do, and I don’t understand why they stopped caring about the medical program,” Wiehl said. “They just did.”

New Jersey’s medical cannabis program (established by the law also called the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act) went into effect in January 2010, and later adult-use cannabis sales began in April 2022. Data reported on April 15 shows that there are roughly 80,000 medical cannabis patients in New Jersey, although at its peak, the state had more than 129,000 registered patients as of May 2022.

Medical cannabis sales have also decreased in recent years as well. Once at a height of $226 million brought in in 2022, 2023 numbers show that the state only collected $124 million. Adult-use sales on the other hand have continued to rise, with 2023 numbers showing $675 million.

The New Jersey Monitor stated that medical cannabis patients have access to extended dispensary operating hours, reserved parking, medical-only sales, are exempt from some taxes, and can purchase more cannabis products.

Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey director Ken Wolski explained that medical cannabis needs to be a “very real part of health care in New Jersey” in order to keep it operating.

Leaders of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJ-CRC), such as executive director Jeff Brown, have said that they’re looking into a course of action to support its medical cannabis program with “an unwavering commitment to patient access.” This included a move to reduce medical cannabis card fees from $200 to $10, and giving patients a digital card for free.

However, the CRC has stated that the reason for the decrease in medical cannabis patient enrollment is because patients must sacrifice paying for medical cannabis in lieu of the cost for higher priced doctor appointments. “Despite what the NJ-CRC has done so far—eliminating registration fee and requiring Alternative Treatment Center to preserve priority access for patients—patients are seemingly leaving the program because they cannot afford the fees they are being charged by some doctors,” Brown explained.

State law requires that doctors certify patients who qualify for medical cannabis. This includes patients suffering from conditions such as epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma, cancer, anxiety, chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and more. There are approximately 1,500 doctors who are allowed to certify patients, but many of them are not taking new patients at this time.

During the pandemic, legislation was passed to enable telehealth renewal for medical cannabis patients. This costs between $100-$150, and $150-$200 for a physical visit. Doctors are permitted to require patients to renew this fee anywhere between every 90 days or up to once a year. “We hear from [patients] that the significant obstacles they are facing are centered around costs that are outside the purview of the NJ-CRC: cost associated with the fees charged by doctors to provide authorization forms, and the cost of cannabis and cannabis products,” Brown added.

Legislators have attempted to pass bills that would have extended insurance to cover medical cannabis costs such as this, but none have been passed. Most recently, Assembly Bill 898 (introduced by Rep. Verlina Reynolds-Jackson in January 2024) would “subsidize purchase price of medical cannabis for registered qualifying patients enrolled in Medicaid or NJ Family Care programs.”

Wiehl also told the New Jersey Monitor that legislators should introduce a bill to help cover bills related to doctor’s visits, or expand the number of doctors who can certify patients for medical cannabis. He stated that he spends $15,000 annually on medical cannabis for himself, and would like to see legislation help patients avoid such high prices. “$1,200 a month and that’s on the cheap side. This is a lot to ask someone to pay for their medicine. If it could get covered by insurance, that’d be great, but if the medical program goes away, that’s never going to happen,” Wiehl said.

Unlike other states with medical and adult-use cannabis programs, New Jersey does not permit home cultivation. Wolski and Wiehl told the news outlet that changing the law to make growing legal could potentially lead to an increase in patients. Wiehl added that if specific products were limited to medical-only patients, such as high dose edibles or THC beverages, it could offer more incentive to keep people applying for medical cards.

Wiehl added that while the CRC has done its job well, he believes that the program might “wither away and die” if nothing changes. The state is home to 73 adult-use dispensaries and only 52 medical cannabis dispensaries, which forces patients to end their cardholding status and just become adult-use consumers. “[The CRC] let everyone come in and open up all these rec shops without forcing them into the medical side,” Wiehl said. “You let all this happen, you didn’t do anything to stop it, and now we’re here. At this point, let’s just wrap it up and move everything over to the recreational side. It’s backwards, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Brown has confirmed that the CRC isn’t going to just abandon patients, and that a current review is being conducted. “We are reviewing the medicinal cannabis rules and looking for ways we can better serve patients within the purview of Jake Honig Law,” Brown said. “We believe in the capacity of cannabis in medical treatment—and Jake Honig’s Law guarantees access for patients in New Jersey.”

The post Medical Cannabis Program on the Decline in New Jersey first appeared on High Times.

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