After a long delay in New Jersey, many medical marijuana patients are still waiting for their medicine. Then-Gov. John Corzine first signed the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act in January 2010, but since then, implementation of the measure has been slow. Although the state originally planned to have the necessary alternative treatment centers open in July 2011, the state’s first licensee, Greenleaf Compassion Center, is not scheduled to open until September of this year. A total of only five other planned facilities have been approved, four of which still have no approved location. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) has even called for a hearing into the cause of the delays, protesting that there is “no adequate explanation” for the current situation. Difficulties with organization, vetting the necessary officials, and objections by local authorities have all been cited by the Star-Ledger as causes.
Dr. Walter Husar, a neurologist from Rockaway, complains that along with disorganized lists of participating physicians, strict regulations are another barrier to safe access to the drug. Under the current system, patients must have an existing “bona fide” relationship with one of the limited number of participating physicians, as defined here. The physicians must then submit an official statement recommending the patient. The doctor must then transfer a unique reference code to the patient, who can then use it to register him- or herself. The registration of a patient is only valid for 90 days, after which the doctor and the patient must repeat the process. According to Chris Goldstein with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey, this is the only state where only the doctors on an official list can prescribe marijuana. Sixteen other states, plus the District of Columbia, have medicinal marijuana programs. Access to marijuana in New Jersey is also limited to patients with one of a set list of serious medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, with use for some conditions only permitted when other treatments have failed or particular complications are present.
Husar and other doctors report themselves flooded with calls from potential patients. However, in a stark demonstration of the difficulty of joining the program, more physicians than patients have been registered. Approximately 50 patients have been recognized as eligible for medical marijuana, while only around 150 physicians are participating, out of over 30,000 in the state.
Husar agrees that marijuana can be helpful for multiple sclerosis sufferers in particular, citing his 25 years of experience with such patients, some of whom obtained the drug illegally. He is, however, concerned that since there is still no legal source of medical marijuana, even the patients who are already registered with the program may be subject to legal penalties if they are caught with their medicine. Under New Jersey’s current laws, this is a serious risk. Possession of even the smallest amount is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine, while those caught growing even a single plant could be subject to a felony conviction, a fine of up to $25,000, and a prison sentence of up to five years.