TRENTON – In addition to studying the delays in approving recreational sales of adult-use marijuana, which might be cleared up before it meets, a special legislative committee is also supposed to look at ways to reduce the costs of medical marijuana.

The Senate health committee recently took a first stab at that issue, passing – for the second year in a row – a bill that would allow the costs of medical marijuana to be reimbursed by four state programs, including the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled program.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said insurance companies are not permitted to cover medical marijuana as the therapies aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration. His bill would allow for coverage by PAAD, Senior Gold, the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund and the Victims of Crime Compensation Office.

“We all know that the cost of medical cannabis is expensive and for some it’s out of reach,” Vitale said.

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Vitale said a separate bill that will be taken up later would allow for coverage through the State Health Benefits Program, the School Employees Health Benefits Program and workers’ compensation.

Michael Brennan of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey said he thinks New Jersey’s medical marijuana program would have more than 130,000 patients in a state of 9.3 million residents, if not for the costs being so prohibitive.

“For many, they don’t even bother to apply or, as with overregulation time and time again, it forces people looking for relief into the black market,” Brennan said. “Overregulation always, never fails to keep the black market healthy.”

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

“We’ve overcome the medical aspect, but right now we’re on the financial aspect,” Hannaman said. “As you hear from patients, that is the most crucial part now, is to let people afford medication. Without affordability, there’s no medication.”

Mark Bolton, head of global public policy and senior legal counsel for Greenwich Biosciences, opposed the bill. His company develops cannabinoid-derived medicines that can gain FDA approval after trials and says that level of caution and rigor won’t be followed if states cover all medical marijuana.

“It is a significant policy risk for the state to take money out of these programs to pay for cannabis products when the standard of care, the evidentiary support of safety and efficacy and the quality controls are lacking,” Bolton said. And with that, the health outcomes are so uncertain.”

Bolton said the New Jersey programs that would start covering medical marijuana costs have limited budgets and that funding could be displaced that otherwise would be used for other purposes. He said the costs for one medical marijuana patient equal the expenses for 12 patients’ drug coverage in PAAD and 35 patients in Senior Gold.

“As a result, funding for critical services like hospice care, wheelchair access, prescription medications may be inhibited by reimbursement for cannabis,” he said. “And that displacement could be significant.”

The bill, S313, advanced unanimously but not without some concerns. Its advancement also lands it where it stalled in 2021, awaiting a hearing in the Senate budget committee.

“I do 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-grow legislation would have resolved a lot of this, for medical and recreational, if the state eventually takes that on.”

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

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

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