Medical marijuana report illustrates N.J.’s problems with access

The state Department of Health’s biennial report on the medical marijuana program provided a peek into some of the ongoing struggles the state faces — which it recommends resolving by increasing access to and availability of medical marijuana to create a more competitive market.

Despite doubling the number of patients through expanded approved uses by the department, there are cost constraints skewing the regular demand, according to the report.

“Because medicinal marijuana is not reimbursed by insurance and can be costly for patients, and because many of the patients in New Jersey’s program are either seniors or on government assistance and thus have fixed incomes, the high prices of the product are likely depressing demand,” the report said.

“Lowering prices should be an explicit policy goal of the Division of Medicinal Marijuana. Lowering prices is best accomplished by increasing competition, access and supply in the marketplace, with more options for patients to obtain the therapy.”

Patients are also not regularly purchasing every month, as a result of the high cost — although it is matching the illegal market price in some cases — leaving New Jersey’s per-patient use at half an ounce, according to the report.

That is less than half of Colorado’s almost 1.3 ounces per patient per month.

But the report also highlights a consistent shortage of available product, paired with a need for significant increases in future growth to meet the demands of an expanded patient and provider base in the program.

That includes increasing cultivation of medical marijuana and supporting addition Alternative Treatment Center sites.

“The department estimates that, in three years, New Jersey will need between 440,000 and 1 million square feet of licensed cultivation capacity to meet growing demand — or between 25 and 50 cultivation sites, depending on average size of site,” according to the report.

The program currently serves 44,000 patients with six ATC sites, with six more sites on the way. That is less than half the number of patients with six sites in the prior year.

The revenue reflects the growth. In 2017, ATC revenue totaled $29.4 million. In 2018, the total revenue was $53.4 million.

The release of the report, on Monday, spurred state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) to reignite the legalized marijuana debate — which was tied to expansion of medical marijuana.

“The report states that services have been ‘keeping pace with demand,’ but points to the possible future need for greater access and availability,” Sweeney said in a statement Monday.

“Approval of the six new Alternative Treatment Centers will not only provide greater access, their operations will also produce the additional findings needed to make informed decisions on how to make the program work more effectively. That is why I supported the expansion, but we need the additional data the new ATCs will produce to move forward and before taking action on an incomplete report. The governor, the speaker and I should stick to our agreement to work for legislative approval of the three bills without sacrificing the criminal justice reforms that are so important.”