WASSERMAN: NJ still has long way to go on marijuana
Opinions Column: A Healthy Dose of Justice
In most editions of this column, I have taken extensive lengths to highlight some problem regarding the public health and show readers why both policy and leadership are failing to properly address the needs of the people affected by the problem. For this edition, I would like to take the time to discuss a new frontier that may actually be a policy move in the right direction and highlights how the changing of the guard in the United States’ two-party system can create net benefits to the public health and the needs of the vulnerable.
Through Executive Order 6 (EO 6), Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) has begun efforts to revamp and expand the state’s medical marijuana program. In doing so, Murphy has stated that, “We are changing the restrictive culture of our medical marijuana program to make it more patient-friendly,” signaling dramatic departures from former Gov. Chris Christie’s (R-N.J.) approach to marijuana as a therapeutic technology. It is no secret that upon Murphy’s inauguration New Jersey would be in for reforms to marijuana across the board, with his campaign touting goals of a total legalization bill possibly within one year, and the establishment of a new $1.3 billion industry in the Garden State. EO 6 directs the New Jersey Department of Health to conduct a 60-day review of the state’s medical marijuana program, with stated intentions to expand the list of conditions eligible for medical marijuana treatment, improve patient engagement through a digital portal to manage prescriptions as well as instate a multitude of regulatory changes that would streamline accessibility to marijuana for patients, allow doctors to make prescriptions more easily and allow existing businesses to expand, while increasing support for new medical marijuana businesses. The Murphy administration’s report on EO 6 delineates policy reforms from the patient, Alternate Treatment Center (ATC) and physician perspectives, and intends to engage all stakeholders as the legislative agenda is enacted across the beginning of Murphy’s tenure as governor.
New Jersey’s medical marijuana program was enacted in 2010, but only five dispensaries have opened across the entire state, creating access for just more than 18,000 patients as of 2018, which is far smaller than comparably populated states. Murphy has drawn contrast to Michigan’s medical marijuana program, which has created access for 218,000 people in a similar time frame. Murphy’s new health commissioner, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, has been a vocal supporter of expanding marijuana accessibility from his firsthand experience with treating patients suffering from cancer and chronic pain. Under Elnahal, a new staff of leadership includes an assistant commissioner for medical marijuana, Jeffrey A. Brown, to oversee the development of the program.
In a 2018 report from the non-profit group Americans for Safe Access called “Medical Marijuana Access in the United States: A Patient-Focused Analysis of the Patchwork of State Laws,” New Jersey’s current medical marijuana laws and regulations were given an overall “C” grade at 76 percent, compared to the highest “B+” score given to California at 89.55 percent. Grading is issued according to categories of patients' rights and civil protections, access to medicine, ease of navigating the medical marijuana system, functionality of the system and consumer safety and provider requirements. Although Americans for Safe Access commends the reforms put forward by the Murphy administration, it points out significant flaws in the existing system, particularly in the way of patients' rights and civil protections. Under the current New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, medical marijuana patients are not protected from being terminated by employers for using their prescribed medicine, being evicted by landlords for using marijuana at home or from being discriminated against in receiving an organ transplant. The report recommends reforms in all the aforementioned areas, as well as advocates for expansion of production and supplies for medical marijuana products.
Murphy’s stated goal is to fully legalize marijuana for recreational use within his first year of office, operating as the backbone for the governor’s entire economic legislative agenda. Through the increased revenue produced by marijuana sales, Murphy has stated interest in funding schools, fulfilling obligations to government worker pensions, creating free community college and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Expanding a more compassionate medical marijuana program is a good step in the right direction, but the Murphy administration must be vigilant in filling in the gaps that produce injustice across the medical marijuana system. Additional efforts to leverage total marijuana legalization as a means of reducing mass incarceration, expanding social justice and reducing inequality are promising, but only time will tell if Murphy can successfully use Trenton’s bully pulpit to build a fairer New Jersey.
Jake Wasserman is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy senior majoring in public health with a minor in cognitive science. His column, “A Healthy Dose of Justice,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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