You may have heard about the benefits of medical cannabis and wondered if it can help you or someone you love. Although the terms cannabis and marijuana are often used interchangeably, marijuana is the dried flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant, which contain psychoactive compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as well as other non-mind-altering active compounds like cannabidiol (CBD). Medical cannabis is effectively the same compound as cannabis generally but taken for a medicinal purpose. An estimated 3.5 million medical cannabis users presently use medical cannabis products for pain control, which is the most common medical use of medical cannabis in the United States.
Medical cannabis is generally not strong enough for post-operative pain control, however many acknowledge its use for managing seizure disorders and chronic medical conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, eating disorders, Alzheimer’s, muscle spasms, nausea, and pain. Medical cannabis is often regarded as safer and less addictive than opiates; it can also be used in conjunction with withdrawal from opiate pain killers.
Despite the New Jersey Legislature approving the use of medical cannabis in 2010 with the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, patient access to medical cannabis has been limited because of supply and demand issues as well as the prior administration’s desire to curtail the program’s expansion. Despite the New Jersey Department of Health’s recent approval of six (6) additional alternative treatment center applications, the state currently has only six (6) providers operating for nearly fifty thousand (50,000) patients. As a result, the New Jersey legislature passed an expansion of the state’s medical cannabis law. The Assembly passed the bill on a 66 to 5 vote with 6 abstentions while the Senate passed the bill 31 to 5. In a statement, state Senator Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said, “In many instances, marijuana can be a safer and even more effective alternative to other pharmaceuticals, particularly in the case of opioids. I’m glad to know that soon, health care providers will be able to offer this important treatment to suffering New Jerseyans.” Governor Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill into law, which could help jump start the industry in New Jersey and eliminate long lines and short supply.
Changes to the Law
The new bill would create the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which would regulate cannabis businesses and oversee industry growth, and implement several other changes designed to increase patient access to medical cannabis.
Patient limits on medical cannabis would increase from two (2) ounces a month to three (3) ounces a month for the first eighteen (18) months after the bill is enacted. Following the initial eighteen (18) month period, the new Cannabis Regulatory Commission would determine medical cannabis dispensing limits via regulation. Patients with terminal illnesses or in hospice care would have no limitations on monthly medical cannabis amounts.
New Jersey has some of the most expensive medical cannabis in the country, at nearly Five Hundred and 00/100 Dollars ($500.00) an ounce with sales tax. In an attempt to control pricing, the bill would require dispensaries to post their prices online and prevent the dispensaries from changing the price list more than once a month.
Currently, patients may only be authorized to receive medical cannabis for up to ninety (90) days. Once the ninety (90) day period expires, a patient must be re-authorized to receive additional medical cannabis. Since insurance typically does not cover re-authorization visits, the re-authorization visits can be a significant expense for patients. The new bill would allow authorization for up to one (1) year.
Despite the recently approved applications for six (6) additional alternative treatment centers, there are currently only six (6) operating alternative treatment centers serving the nearly fifty thousand (50,000) patients in New Jersey. The new Cannabis Regulatory Commission would allow new, separate licenses for medical cannabis cultivators, dispensaries, and manufacturers, and solicit applications for new cultivator, manufacturing, and dispensary locations within ninety (90) days of the legislation’s effective date. The state anticipates issuing licenses for one hundred eight (108) new medical cannabis companies, which would be geographically distributed throughout the state of New Jersey. The bill would also allow home delivery for patients.
Under the prior medical cannabis law, edibles could only be sold to minors. The new law would allow edibles to be sold to anyone authorized to receive medical cannabis.
In addition to physicians, advance practice nurses and physician assistants with the power to write prescriptions would be able to recommend patients for the medical cannabis program. Facilities like nursing homes and hospice centers can be registered as a patient’s institutional caregiver, acting as a conduit between the dispensary and patient.
The bill would provide a number of legal protections to medical cannabis users in New Jersey including protections for school enrollment, certain licenses and jobs, renting and purchasing homes, custody and visitation of children, and insurance. The New Jersey bill does allow exceptions for situations that would create a conflict between federal law and state law. Specifically, the bill will not require an employer to commit an act that would violate federal law and result in losing federal funding or a licensing-related benefit. The law also does not restrict an employer’s ability to restrict the possession or use of an intoxicating substance in the workplace, during work hours, or after work hours on the workplace premises.
The New Jersey bill would also prevent the Department of Children and Families’ Division of Child Protection and Permanency from beginning an investigation against a pregnant woman or a parent based solely on the basis that they are a qualified patient, medical provider, or employee of a medical cannabis company. The bill would prevent insurers from discriminating against health care providers and health care facilities engaging in conduct authorized under the medical cannabis legislation.
Currently, medications in New Jersey are not taxed. This bill will phase out the current 6.625 percent (6.625%) sales tax imposed on medical cannabis over five (5) years, bringing medical cannabis in line with other medications. The bill would also prevent municipalities from imposing more than a two percent (2%) transfer tax on dispensaries.
Visitors to New Jersey who are registered in another U.S. state as either a medical cannabis user or designated caregiver can be considered registered users or caregivers in New Jersey for up to six (6) months.
Adult Use Market for Cannabis
While use of cannabis remains almost entirely illegal at the federal level, twenty-nine (29) states and the District of Columbia have passed laws permitting its medicinal or recreational use. In New Jersey, the legislature has proposed many bills over the last decade that would decriminalize recreational marijuana, however none of the proposed bills have passed. Recently, Governor Phil Murphy’s lobbying campaign for legalizing recreational marijuana and creating an adult-use market failed to garner enough support in the legislature. The changes to the medical cannabis laws do not make recreational use legal in New Jersey, however the governor has promised that the issue is not dead.