By David Knowlton, CERI Board Member / NJ.com
On Election Day, voters in New Jersey spoke loudly: legalize the sale of cannabis in our state. But as we move toward legalized recreational cannabis, we must not risk the health of medicinal cannabis patients.
New Jersey became the 14th state to allow the sale of medicinal cannabis when the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was passed in 2010. Right now, more than 80,000 people in New Jersey use cannabis to treat or alleviate symptoms from 17 debilitating conditions — conditions ranging from the pain and nausea of cancer to epilepsy, ALS and glaucoma.
The New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program is enabling people to improve their quality of life, and, in some cases, to ease their end-of-life journey.
While I am not opposed to the legalization of recreational cannabis for adults, I am deeply concerned about what the change will mean to people who rely on New Jersey’s medicinal program. In state after state, we’ve seen the rise of a recreational market seriously damage the availability of medicinal cannabis.
Some patients may decide to forego the costly doctor’s office visit, and instead, self-treat their condition with recreational use products. Meanwhile, the cannabis strains that many medicinal patients rely on, in particular those with low levels of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, often disappear. The rise of recreational markets leads to increases in the overall levels of THC in the cannabis sold in a state. Growers know their market. Selling cannabis with low THC to the recreational market is like trying to sell low-alcohol vodka.
Meanwhile, prices for the specialized edibles favored by medical consumers often skyrocket.
The Associated Press analyzed four states with medicinal markets that legalized recreational cannabis: Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska. All four saw a drop in medical patients after the broader legalization of cannabis. The analysis found that in Oregon the number of medical-only retail shops fell from 400 to two. Hundreds of growers who contracted with individual patients to grow specific strains ended that work.
The destruction of medicinal cannabis dispensaries in New Jersey would be tragic. As the founder of the Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor, I got to know many people who relied on medical cannabis. I spoke with veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and cancer patients who found cannabis far superior to opioids for pain relief. I met the parents of children with a rare form of epilepsy who told me of their children’s return to a normal life due to low THC cannabis. And as we continue to face an opioid epidemic, I know patients who were able to control their pain with cannabis and finally beat their opioid addictions.
The Murphy administration has been a great supporter of the medicinal marijuana program, and I am eager to work with the administration to create some protections for medicinal cannabis.
I also see the larger issues and prejudices that prevent cannabis from being treated like any other medication. In the United States, cannabis, along with heroin, is labeled a Schedule 1 drug, which means government regulators claim the drug has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. That classification hinders the research we need to obtain a greater understanding of cannabis, such as what cannabis strains and dosages work best for certain conditions. With research lacking, physicians are less likely to recommend cannabis. Right now, insurers and payers will not cover cannabis, even for a dying cancer patient.
We created the Cannabis Education and Research Institute (CERI) to advance research and understanding around this ancient botanical, a plant that has clear healing properties. While New Jersey can create some protections for medicinal patients, ultimately we need more research and understanding. I’m urging medicinal cannabis patients to stay in New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program and to stay with their physicians.
Meanwhile, CERI is fighting to end the federal restrictions that hinder research. State legalization alone does not supersede federal restrictions on research. Removing the prohibitive Schedule 1 designation would open the door to more research. If physicians gain more confidence in cannabis — and the drug is proven effective and safe for many conditions — we may see payers step up. That would go a long way to save medical cannabis for the people who need this medication.