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Is New Jersey The Next State To Legalize Adult Use Cannabis?

By Aaron G. Biros
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Back in November, New Jersey elected Democrat Phil Murphy for governor, who ran on a campaign of legalizing adult use cannabis and using tax revenue from that for important government programs like education and pensions. According to CNN Money, NJ State Senate President Stephen Sweeney says he wants to vote on draft legislation and have it approved within 100 days of Gov. Murphy’s inauguration.

New Jersey’s Governor-elect Phil Murphy Photo: Phil Murphy, Flickr

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari back in May (the same Senator that sponsored the state’s now-implemented medical cannabis law), would legalize cannabis use, growing and sales, for those over the age of 21, while tacking on a hefty tax. The legislation, if it passes the vote and signed into law this spring, would also create a licensing framework and a “Division of Marijuana Enforcement,” the government body that would be tasked with regulating the industry.

Election victories throughout the state for Democrats means they now control the executive and legislative branches of the state’s government, opening the door for possibly legalizing cannabis within a year. This is a massive about-face for the state, previously controlled by Republican and Trump-supporter Chris Christie, a less-than-cannabis-friendly Governor who once called tax revenue from cannabis “blood money.”

Senator Nicholas P. Scutari (D)

But the newly revived fervor over legalizing cannabis in New Jersey comes with its own hang-ups. For one, Governor Phil Murphy claimed this could bring up to $300 million in tax revenue, which is a bit of a pipedream in the short term. The state would need total cannabis sales to hit $1.2 billion to reach that amount of tax revenue, something New Frontier Data doesn’t expect would happen until maybe 2025.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, wrote an op-ed addressing Murphy’s campaign promises. Sinha says that Gov.-elect Murphy ran on legalizing cannabis “as a social and racial justice priority.” He argues that in order for New Jersey to legalize cannabis equitably, the legislation needs to have automatic expungement of previous cannabis-related criminal convictions, a provision for growing at home, fair regulations and community reinvestment of the tax revenue. On the surface, Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s bill introduced back in May of 2017 seems to have provisions in place to meet all of these requirements.

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Bridging the Gap: Doctors, Education and Compliance

By Aaron G. Biros
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Doctors are still very hesitant to recommend cannabis in medical treatment of their patients. A key aspect missing from the medical cannabis industry is participation from physicians and the medical community. Cannabis’ Schedule I drug status blocks medical research and leaves a stigma in the medical community. Doctors are concerned with the implications of recommending cannabis, the possibility of losing their license to practice and most lack any formal education in prescribing cannabis. The DEA’s recent announcement to consider rescheduling cannabis this year could dramatically impact doctor’s willingness to work with the drug.

The DEA’s plan to release a decision on the matter represents a major shift in attitude toward treating patients with medical cannabis. This could very possibly culminate in the rescheduling of cannabis, which would allow for more medical research, including clinical trials. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist from Pearl River, New York, believes the bigger obstacles for doctors prescribing cannabis include the stigma associated with it, legal concerns and physicians’ lack of education. Dr. Gottlieb has practices in both New York and New Jersey where he recommends patients cannabis. He believes there should be some type of recourse to help physicians circumvent legal issues. “Some of the bigger legal concerns regarding cannabis surround complying with state regulations,” says Gottlieb. “That sort of compliance includes confirming the diagnosis of the patient with thorough documentation, making sure it is an approved condition to treat with cannabis, documenting continued treatment of the illness and clearing the patient of any contraindications.”

Dr. Gottlieb believes it should be a collaborative effort on behalf of states, dispensaries and patients working to help educate doctors on the legal concerns surrounding the recommendation of cannabis. “Physicians are not taught anything in medical school about dosing or the medical effects of cannabis,” says Gottlieb. “With more education we can get rid of the stigma and get physicians aware of the potential benefits for their patients and the ability to control dosage in medication.”

Currently, there is very little communication between doctors and dispensaries in New York. A collaborative effort to educate all stakeholders involved could help get more doctors involved and streamline the entire process. “Doctors want patients to feel comfortable and know what to expect in receiving treatment with cannabis,” continues Gottlieb. “Which will come with a more transparent system, involving patients, doctors and dispensaries in a conversation about education.”

Pointing to the success of doctors actively recommending cannabis could also facilitate doctor participation. “The number one reason why I recommend cannabis is that I have a number of patients that use it to successfully treat their conditions and completely eliminate their opioid regiment,” says Gottlieb. That kind of success in a treatment should grab the attention of physicians as what could possibly be best for their patients. With more education and research, doctors will gradually feel more comfortable recommending cannabis to their patients.