Get Ready For Massive Expansion Of NJ's Medical Marijuana Program. Here's The Scoop.

An audit of New Jersey's limited medical marijuana program will recommend that Gov. Phil Murphy launch a massive expansion of the program, NJ Advance Media has learned.

The suggested changes would loosen the program's requirements and add medical marijuana shops across the state, according to people with direct knowledge of the state Department of Health report who weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Those recommendations -- to be unveiled Tuesday -- align closely with Murphy's main priority of overhauling medical marijuana in New Jersey: expanded access for patients. Murphy ordered a 60-day review of the state's program in January after describing it as "constrained."

"We cannot turn a deaf ear to our veterans, the families of children facing terminal illness, or to any of the other countless New Jerseyans who only wish to be treated like people, and not criminals," Murphy said at a press conference in January when he ordered the audit.

Among the expected recommendations:

1. Dozens more conditions should be approved for the medical marijuana program

Last year, the state's medical marijuana review panel approved 43 conditions to be added to the program, including anxiety, chronic pain and migraines. But those conditions have not been added to the program. Expanding the list would make medical marijuana an option for thousands more patients. The program is currently limited to people with epilepsy, glaucoma, ALS, severe vomiting from AIDS or cancer treatment, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, and other terminal illnesses.

2. Existing medical marijuana businesses should expand almost immediately

Only six companies have been authorized to participate New Jersey's medical marijuana program. They grow their own marijuana and sell it through their storefronts in Bellmawr, Cranbury, Egg Harbor, Montclair and Woodbridge. The sixth, in Secaucus, is set to open in the coming months.

The report will recommend that these six companies should be allowed to expand to additional facilities across the state, something they've long anticipated.

"As the industry grows and more patients are coming into the industry with new qualifying conditions such as chronic pain and anxiety, we think there's going to be a need for additional retail shops," Aaron Epstein, general manager of Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, had noted in a recent interview.

3. More companies should be allowed to get involved

Along with an expansion of the existing medical marijuana businesses, new companies may be able to get in on the industry. The report recommends issuing licenses to new businesses, but with one difference. 

The existing medical marijuana businesses are required to be vertically integrated, meaning they do everything: The grow, process and sell cannabis. The new licenses would allow companies to participate in only one function of the industry. Some would be allowed to grow, while others would be allowed to process or sell marijuana.

4. People should be able to see their personal doctor about marijuana

The report suggests eliminating what advocates call one of the biggest barriers for patients: New Jersey's medical marijuana law says that only doctors who register with the state are allowed to recommend marijuana to patients. The vast majority of the state's doctors have not registered.

There are currently 536 doctors on the state's list. New Jersey has more than 28,000 doctors, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The report suggests making the registry voluntary, while allowing patients to get recommendations for medical marijuana from their personal doctors.

Doctors have said privately that the registry requirement keeps them out of the program, because they fear it would alienate patients.

It's unclear if some of Murphy's other ideas -- like allowing patients to buy more marijuana at once and allowing dispensaries to deliver -- will be in the report, but the recommendations are widely expected to increase access for New Jerseyans.

Last week, a state Assembly committee advanced an even more ambitious plan for medical marijuana expansion that would allow more dispensaries and growers, along with allowing doctors to decide who should have access to cannabis, instead of a predetermined list of conditions. Murphy's position on that bill is unclear.

Medical marijuana advocates have long criticized New Jersey's program, saying it was much too small. Roughly 18,000 patients are enrolled in the state's program, compared to around 220,000 patients in Michigan, a similarly sized state.

"It was a program designed to keep people out of it," said Ken Wolski, CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, shorly after Murphy announced the audit. "It's a program that's not meeting the needs of the patients."

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