Only 127 of some 1,000 patients who have applied for medical marijuana have been able to receive it.
After a New Jersey newspaper ran a story about a cancer patient living in the Garden State who was forced to buy marijuana from the black market despite qualifying for the state’s medical marijuana program, the paper’s editorial department blasted New Jersey’s medical marijuana program calling it a “scam.”
Suzette Roberts, 64, suffers from stage 4 breast cancer and used marijuana medicinally to ease the pain from her illness and to help stimulate her appetite. But despite paying $500 in doctor bills and another $200 for a medical marijuana ID card, Roberts has never been able to buy marijuana from the state’s only licensed medical marijuana dispensary.
This past spring the state’s sole dispensary, Greenleaf Compassion Center, said they were swamped and hadn’t gotten to Roberts’ name yet, causing her to go back to the black market to obtain her medicine.
In an editorial from the Star-Ledger, the board wrote that those patients like Roberts who have to break the law and buy the drug illegally from the street “should feel no guilt whatsoever about breaking the law,” adding that “Friends and family who might have ready access to the black market should help out, because the state has made it clear that it won’t.”
Roberts is far from the only New Jersey resident who has found herself looking for medicinal marijuana on the street. According to the Star-Ledger, only 127 of the some 1,000 patients that want to buy marijuana from the state’s only dispensary have been able to obtain their medicine. And that number is growing, as the dispensary has been closed since June 2013 due to “lack of inventory.”
“This is a disgrace,” Roberts said. “I am upset and angry that I laid out $700 and I am not getting any answers. I am upset with the state, too, and they don’t seem to care.”
Paul Caise, 63, suffers from a nerve disorder and said that though he hasn’t been able to get his medicine from the dispensary, he doesn’t want to use the black market to obtain his medicine. He says the Health Department should refund his $200 for the “worthless” registration card he bought last year, and called the program “tantamount to fraud.”
In its editorial, the Star-Ledger also wrote that the state’s medical marijuana program is a “mess” and provides “only false hopes and extra expense to desperate people already struggling to afford their own treatment.” The editorial also criticized Republican Gov. Chris Christie for ignoring the state’s needs to “ease the bottleneck of patients and add real competition to lower prices for medical marijuana,” by granting licenses to more dispensaries in order to lessen the demand and the cost of the drug.
Though Greenleaf has been temporarily shut down, and New Jersey’s medical program has been repeatedly described as one of the most restrictive program’s in the nation, Christie maintains that there is “no crisis” in the state’s medical marijuana program.
New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was passed in 2009 and signed into law by then Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in January 2010, days before Corzine left office and Christie took over. Despite numerous attempts by Christie to prevent the law from being enacted, it went into effect on Oct. 1, 2010.
Under the state’s program, residents are not allowed to grow their own marijuana plants, so when a patient is finally allowed to buy their medicine from Greenleaf, they will pay between $440 and $560 for an ounce of marijuana — plus the state’s 7 percent sales tax.
Not worth the cost?
Betty Aldworth is the deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association in Colorado. She said, “No matter what state you are in you can have a difficult time,” but added that medical marijuana patients in New Jersey have the “added challenge and difficulty that licensing has been terribly slow and the program is the most restrictive in the country for patients and business operators.”
According to a review of the state’s medical marijuana program by the Star-Ledger, New Jersey not only has one of the most, if not the most restrictive medical marijuana program in the U.S., but a very expensive one as well.
The news organization reported that New Jersey has the second costliest registration fee, the third-highest sales tax, and the highest marijuana prices in its medical marijuana program.
For example, registration in the state’s program and an ounce of marijuana will cost New Jersey patients $700, but would cost Colorado patients $300, $510 for those in Washington, D.C., $531 in Arizona and $460 in Michigan.
“It’s a rich man’s game,” said Jay Lassiter of Cherry Hill, a registered patient and marijuana activist who said he spent nearly $1,000 on doctor visits, state registry fees and the drug “before I took my first puff.”
In New Jersey, a medical marijuana patient is required to have a “bona fide physician-patient relationship” with a doctor they have been seeing for at least a year, or have seen at least four times. The state doesn’t track the cost of those doctor appointments, but many patients have reported they paid $50 to $300 for doctor visits.
Meghan Wilson, a New Jersey resident who has been trying to obtain a medical marijuana patient card for her 2-year-old daughter Vivian, who has a rare and potentially deadly form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome, said one doctor quoted her a $1,000 fee for a visit.
Wilson was prepared to pay, but the doctor decided not to see Vivian, citing he did not want to take on a pediatric case.
Larry Downs is the executive director of the Medical Society of New Jersey. He said due to a lack of research, many doctors are skeptical marijuana has a medical value.
New Jersey physician Anthony Anzalone is not one of those non-believers. He said he has referred about 100 patients to the program so far and said he is surprised the stigma is still so strong against marijuana.
“I have had other physicians call me and ask, ‘Are you selling marijuana?’ If I can get people away from opioids, I feel I am doing my job. … If I can get somebody back to work, that’s a million dollars — to make a person a productive human being again.”
Anzalone says he only charges $100 for a visit because “Many people come in, they don’t have two nickels to rub together.” He added that referring people to the program is not something that is going to make him rich.