Medical Marijuana Program Changes Win Legislative Approval

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas P. Scutari and Senate Health Chairman Joseph Vitale to amend the state’s medical marijuana law in order to promote access to children with severe illnesses received final legislative approval Monday in the Assembly.

The bill was introduced in response to efforts by a Union County couple to obtain what could be life-saving treatment for their 2-year-old daughter, who is suffering from Dravet syndrome, a severe and rare form of epilepsy that anti-seizure medicine does not control. Marijuana has been helpful in preventing most seizures in a number of children with the illness in Colorado and California, according to The Star-Ledger which first reported the family’s story. The bill would require that minors be subject to the same requirements as adults to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. The measure is intended to remove barriers to treatment faced by children such as 2-year-old Vivian Wilson, who had her first seizure at two months old.

“Our medical marijuana program should have restrictions in place to protect against abuse, but it cannot be so limited that patients who are eligible for the program cannot access care,” said Scutari (D-Union). “The Wilson family has exhausted all treatment options for their child and if medical marijuana can help reduce the pain and suffering their toddler is forced to endure, we have an obligation to provide it. This bill will still require a recommendation from a doctor and parental consent for treatment, but it will eliminate unnecessary restrictions to better ensure that patients like Vivian – and others who are suffering with similar conditions – are able to access the compassionate care they deserve.”

Signed in January 2010, the state’s medical marijuana law – designated the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act – created one of the strictest programs in the nation. Regulations adopted by the state Department of Health and Senior Services and the Board of Medical Examiners further restricted the state program. The bill would preempt regulations adopted by the state Board of Medical Examiners in October 2011 which require that a physician seeking to authorize the medical use of marijuana by a minor obtain written confirmation from a pediatrician and a psychiatrist establishing, in their professional opinions, that the patient is likely to receive therapeutic or palliative benefits from the medical use of marijuana.

The bill (S-2842) would require that minors be subject to the same requirements as adults when seeking to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program, except that a parent or guardian must receive an explanation of the potential risks and benefits of the medical use of marijuana, and must grant permission for the child’s medical use of marijuana. Currently, adults are required to obtain certification from a physician with whom they have a bona fide physician-patient relationship, meaning the relationship has existed for at least a year, the physician has seen the patient for the debilitating medical condition on at least four occasions or the physician assumes responsibility for providing management and care of the patient’s debilitating medical condition after a review of medical history and physical examinations.

The legislation would also permit the distribution of medical marijuana in dried form, oral lozenges, topical formulations, or edible form, or another form permitted by the Commissioner of Health. Current regulations prohibit marijuana from being dispensed in the edible form, which in some cases may be the most appropriate form for a young child to receive treatment. Additionally, the bill would remove restrictions on the number of strains of marijuana that can be cultivated by alternative treatment centers under the program.

“It is heartbreaking that residents with severe illnesses are still being prevented from getting the compassionate care they were promised more than three years ago when we passed legislation to create the law,” said Vitale (D-Middlesex). “Even at that time, it was well known that our medical marijuana law was among the strictest in the nation. State regulations put in place since then have made it virtually impossible for some patients to get the care they need. This measure will remove barriers to treatment for children to better ensure those whose doctors have recommended medical marijuana to reduce their pain and suffering are able to get it.”

The Star-Ledger reported that Vivian Wilson, the 2-year-old from Scotch Plains, met the eligibility requirements for the state’s medical marijuana program but that her parents, Brian and Meghan Wilson, have been unable to obtain the certification from a psychiatrist necessary for their child to participate. The family has already taken numerous steps to help prevent seizures. According to the report, the child wears an eye patch during the day and is kept from direct sunlight; she is on a special diet and medication; and striped or brightly colored clothing or objects have been hidden or removed from the home. The family is seeking treatment for their daughter with marijuana that is provided in capsule form or added to food, which has proven effective for children in other states. The legislation is intended to help facilitate access to potentially beneficial treatment for children in New Jersey with Dravet Syndrome and other debilitating conditions.

The Senate approved the bill last week by a vote of 25-13.The Assembly approved it 55-13-9. It now heads to the desk of the governor.

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