Authored by: Brian P. Sharkey (Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, PC)
We have previously examined the current status of New Jersey's medicinal marijuana program, as well as Governor Murphy's intent to expand access to the program. Specifically, shortly after taking office, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 6 on January 23, 2018. The Order directed the Department of Health ("DOH") and the Board of Medical Examiners ("Board") to review all aspects of the State's medical marijuana system, and required that the review be completed within 60 days.
However, some legislators recently took action in this area, as a bill that would significantly revamp the State's medicinal marijuana program cleared the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee ("Committee") on March 22 – days before the DOH and Board were scheduled to complete their review and release their findings under Executive Order No. 6.
The legislation approved by the Committee, A3740/3477 (ACS), sponsored by Assemblymen Herb Conaway, Reed Gusciora, and Tim Eustace, would greatly expand the State's medicinal marijuana program in a variety of ways. Some of the key changes include:
- Access would be expanded for patients with any diagnosed medical condition by a physician, as opposed to the current program's requirements that only certain conditions qualify;
- Physicians would not be required to enroll in a physician registry as a condition of authorizing qualifying patients to use medicinal marijuana;
- An increase in the maximum amount of medicinal marijuana that may be dispensed to a patient for a thirty-day period from the current limit of two ounces to four ounces;
- An increase in the number of medical marijuana cultivator-processors to a total of 12;
- An increase in the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to 40 (there are only five dispensaries currently in operation); and
- Reduction in the cost for patients to register with the program
The legislation was approved in the Committee by a vote of 6-2, with 2 abstentions, and now moves to the full Assembly. In a press release, Assemblyman Conaway, the Chair of the Committee and a practicing physician, stated:
"There is no benefit in denying a patient relief[.] Medicinal marijuana has the potential to treat many medical condition. If a doctor believes medical marijuana can be an effective treatment, then they should be able to prescribe it to their patients."
Assemblyman Gusciora, who has also introduced comprehensive legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, commented that,
"[h]owever well intentioned, the current program has failed to meet the needs of the residents it sought out to help[.] Too many bureaucratic hurdles have rendered the program ineffective and incapable of meeting the demand for this treatment. This bill would make several revisions to the current law so patients who can benefit from medical marijuana can get it more efficiently and without having to jump through multiple hoops to get it."
Similarly, Assemblyman Eustace, who is a Vice-Chair of the Committee, declared that,
"[t]oo many restrictions have weakened this program and patients have suffered it. Either we believe medical marijuana to be an effective treatment for some medical condition or we don't[.] If the goal is to really help people who are dealing with medical conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana, then we have to make it more accessible."
Although not a permanent member of the Assembly Health Committee, Assemblyman Joe Danielsen sat in on the committee last Thursday, further establishing him as one of the leaders in the Assembly on the topic. At the beginning of the session, he was appointed chair of a newly established committee, Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations. This committee has been tasked with conducting hearings on recreational marijuana legalization.
Republican Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, who is a member of the Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee, was the main voice of opposition to the legislation, citing concerns about whether the expansion was too broad and not properly supported by medical science.
It will be important to monitor not only the progress of this legislation in the Assembly, but also the anticipated report that the State issues following its review of the medical marijuana program. It is entirely possible that some of the changes included in the legislation will also be included in the State's report, which is expected to be released on Tuesday, March 27 and then the issue will become whether such changes will seek to be implemented via Executive action, legislation, or a combination of both.
Lastly, as to the status of recreational cannabis, the possibility of taking the question of legalization to the to the voters via referendum has again been raised. However, in a recent radio interview, Governor Murphy reiterated his preference to pursue a legislative approach, and he stressed his commitment to such a solution on social justice grounds. Senator Nick Scutari, the sponsor of the legalization bill in the upper house, has also been committed to legislation over referendum.