Rival Democrats Hold Up Cannabis Progress in New Jersey

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Ask any Garden State patient about their medical cannabis program and they’ll tell you it stinks. Medical cannabis is expensive and the rules governing the program are onerous and prohibitive.

But relief is on the way. Earlier this year, the state approved more dispensaries, and Bill S10, which would massively improve medical cannabis access in New Jersey, is making its way through the state legislature. Full adult-use legalization should pass this year.

So medical cannabis should be easy at this point, right? Surprisingly, conflicts between Democrats are slowing things down. The New Jersey Legislature meets again on January 15, when they’ll have another opportunity to fix what ails the state’s MMJ program or kick the can down the road. Again.

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Democratic Rivals

Unfortunately, Bill S10 has fallen victim to the acrimony between Gov. Phil Murphy and state Sen. Steve Sweeney, both of whom are Democrats. Will the governor and senate majority leader play nice for once and pass it into law? Their track record suggests not.

Despite Gov. Murphy’s and Sen. Sweeney’s shared leadership with the state party in power, they’ve accomplished very little in the post-Christie era, thanks in large part to their personal clashes. Sen. Sweeney insists on tethering medical cannabis reform to the larger, more complicated adult-use legalization debate.

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a moderate Republican from Monmouth County, co-sponsored Bill S10 to improve New Jersey’s long-languishing medical cannabis program. “Whether we like it or not, [Bill S10] is tied to the recreational debate, for what’s likely strategic reasons,” says O’Scanlon.

“We worked hard to disabuse everyone of that [recreational] affiliation, to see medical marijuana as the medicinal product that it is. Now by tying these two things together, we sort of backtrack on that message and I’m not happy about it,” he adds.

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Opening New Dispensaries

Last month, New Jersey’s Department of Health licensed six new dispensaries, bringing the total to 12. The six existing dispensaries serve roughly 38,000 registered patients, and the number of patients has more than doubled since Gov. Murphy took Chris Christie’s place in early 2018.

New Jersey Deputy Health Commissioner Jeff Brown, who oversees the cannabis program, says, “With the announcement of the six winners of the July 2018 request for applications, we are one step closer to bringing new access points, new products, and a greater availability of medical cannabis in every region of the state.”

But some advocates are considerably less enthusiastic. Edward Forchion, the venerable cannabis activist better known as NJWEEDMAN, rues the development, calling it “a complete sellout.” Forchion continues, saying, “I’m pissed. They awarded them to out-of-staters.”

Peter Rosenfield from the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of NJ was also unimpressed. “Once again it looks like New Jersey’s Department of Health awarded licenses to well-financed groups who have neither sites chosen or buy-in by the community,” he says. “This will likely lead to long delays in the dispensaries getting up and running.”

New licensees must also pass a background check and win municipal approval before they even plant their first seeds, and losing bidders may be able to file lawsuits. So it’s going be a while before those new dispensaries open, maybe even up to a year.

But New Jersey’s cannabis patients are used to long waits thanks to former Gov. Christie, a notorious anti-cannabis crusader whose administration was tasked with getting New Jersey’s program up and running.

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Problems With NJ’s MMJ Program

Medical patients in New Jersey are paying $500 for an ounce of subpar cannabis. Patients are also required to re-certify their qualifying condition every 30, 60, or 90 days, depending on the prescribing physician.

The Health Department has already relaxed many of the Christie-era regulations. It’s cheaper and easier to renew your card, and the list of qualifying conditions has expanded. But a proper cleanup requires legislative intervention as well, which is what S10 is intended to do.

Medical patients in New Jersey are paying $500 for an ounce of subpar cannabis.

Notably, S10 ramps down the 6.25% sales tax on medical cannabis purchases in New Jersey and it would also increase the monthly allotment from two to three ounces. The bill also dramatically expands who qualifies for medical cannabis and includes provisions for out-of-state medical cannabis cardholders.

“With the new qualifying conditions, we really provide much more flexibility,” says Sen. O’Scanlon. “We’re really letting doctors do what they want to do. Just like we do with other drugs. With these qualifying conditions, we almost virtually remove the restrictions and in practice that’s what’s gonna happen. And I’m okay with that.”

But home growing is still a ways off. “At the very least, medicinal marijuana patients should be allowed to cultivate at home,” says Moira Nelson, director of drug policy at Action Together New Jersey. “At the moment, coveted strains run out quickly. And with only 6 dispensaries, it’s burdensome for folks to get there. Many people are driving two hours one way to get their medication. Is that fair?”