TRENTON — New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana program last year served 4,228 patients and their caregivers who chose from 33 different strains of cannabis to alleviate their suffering, according to the latest annual report issued by the state Health Department late Tuesday.
For some severely ill New Jerseyans excluded from the program, however, the report’s release is vitally important for a big reason: It triggers a long-awaited review of whether additional illnesses should be added to the list of conditions that qualify people for to get medical marijuana.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain are not on the list but patients and their advocates have said more people would benefit from the program if they were included. A bill is pending in the legislature to add PTSD to the list.
State Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd, in an interview with NJ Advance Media, acknowledged the criticism that the program is too expensive and too restrictive. But she said there was notable progress made last year, measured in the 25,000 customer service calls and emails handled by the program’s staff, and the expansion from three to 33 strains of cannabis that are now available across the three dispensaries, thanks to a 2013 law. There are five strains of cannabis that contain a higher-than-average concentration of cannabidiol, an active ingredient sought after by parents whose children suffer from severe cases of epilepsy.
“I think the program is going well. We are making steady and ongoing progress to maintain a medical model,” O’Dowd said. “The increase in strains is important for patients, for caregivers and (health) providers.”
“We are meeting the demand and have the capacity to do more,” O’Dowd said, calling that a sign of “success.”
O’Dowd said she will appoint a medical review panel that would consider public requests to add conditions that could be eligible for medical marijuana treatment.
She said she has contacted the state Board of Medical Examiners, which licenses and disciplines physicians, the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocated for the law’s passage, and the Medical Society of New Jersey seeking volunteers for the the 15-member panel, the majority of who must be physicians. Efforts will be made to include doctors who treat conditions that are not on the list but could be added at the public’s request. She did not know how long it would take to assemble the panel and when it would start holding meetings.
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