To address the high cost of medical marijuana, NJ programs could cover it


TRENTON — In addition to examining delays in approving adult recreational marijuana, which may be resolved before its meeting, a special Legislative Committee is also scheduled to explore ways to reduce the cost of medical marijuana.

The Senate Health Committee recently took a first look at the issue, passing — for the second year in a row — a bill that would allow medical marijuana costs to be reimbursed by four state programs, including pharmaceutical assistance for the elderly and disabled people program.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said insurance companies are not allowed to cover medical marijuana because the therapies are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. His bill would allow coverage by PAAD, Senior Gold, the Child Catastrophic Disease Relief Fund and the Victim of Crime Compensation Board.

“We all know that the cost of medicinal cannabis is high and prohibitive for some,” Vitale said.

Vitale said a separate bill, to be considered later, would allow coverage under the state health benefits program, the school workers’ health benefits program and workers’ compensation.

Michael Brennan of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey said he believes New Jersey’s medical marijuana program would reach more than 130,000 patients in a state of 9.3 million people if the cost weren’t so prohibitive.

“For many, they don’t even bother to apply, or, as is always the case with over-regulation, it forces people looking for relief into the black market,” Brennan said. “Over-regulation always keeps the black market healthy.”

Ed Hannaman, attorney and board member of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, said marijuana has been used safely by humans for more than 4,000 years.

“We got over the medical aspect, but now we’re dealing with the financial aspect,” Hannaman said. “Now the most important part, as you hear from patients, is that people can afford medicines. Without affordability there is no medicine.”

Mark Bolton, head of global public policy and senior legal counsel for Greenwich Biosciences, opposed the bill. His company is developing cannabinoid-derived medicines that studies suggest may receive FDA approval, and says there’s a level of caution and rigor that’s missing from states covering all medical marijuana.

“There is significant political risk for the state to take money from these programs to pay for cannabis products in the absence of the standard of care, evidence of safety and efficacy, and quality controls,” Bolton said. “And so the health consequences are so uncertain.”

Bolton said the New Jersey programs that would begin to cover medical marijuana costs had budget constraints and could crowd out funds that would otherwise be used for other purposes. He said the cost of one medical marijuana patient is equal to the cost of drug supplies for 12 patients in PAAD and 35 patients in Senior Gold.

“As a result, funding for critical services such as hospice care, wheelchair access, and prescription medication can be inhibited by reimbursement for cannabis,” he said. “And that shift could be significant.”

The statement, S313, proceeded unanimously, but not without reservations. Its advancement also lands it where it stalled in 2021, awaiting hearing in the Senate Budget Committee.

“I think there are some risks in mandating reimbursement for a product that hasn’t been approved by the FDA,” said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth. “I think my home-growing legislation would have solved a lot of that, both medicinal and recreational, when the state eventually took over.”

The right to grow a small number of marijuana plants at home is something advocates have been striving for for more than a dozen years.

“Why is it okay for a 21-year-old to grow cannabis for profit, but a cancer patient gets five years in prison for doing the exact same thing?” said Edward “Lefty” Grimes, director of the activist group Sativa Cross.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at [email protected]

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