NEW JERSEY — Imagine the worst pain you’ve ever felt. Imagine every broken bone, every cut that needed stitches, every thrown out back. Now imagine you feel like that every day, and the only options to help have side effects like addiction, liver failure, and suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Imagine you try them anyway and they don’t work.
But then something comes along that seems like it could help. It’s the only thing you haven’t tried, and yes, studies on its efficacy remain sparse, but they’re promising.
Now imagine political infighting in Trenton makes it nearly impossible for you to get that help. That’s what it has been like living with chronic pain in New Jersey while our lawmakers tied the expansion of the medical marijuana program to the passage of recreational legalization— a plan that failed spectacularly with Wednesday’s announcement that the legislative path to pot was effectively dead.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced nine changes intended to expand the medical marijuana program, and lawmakers have pledged to push for new medical marijuana bills. Although a good step forward, disabled people’s access to medication should have never been used as a bargaining chip to make recreational pot more palatable.
“We will move forward with the expansion of our medical cannabis program as well as the progressive social justice reforms in the expungement legislation,” Sweeney said on Twitter. “We will not, however, pursue the legalization of adult use marijuana at this time.”
Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin both said they’ll continue work on A-10, which would make access easier for thousands of Garden State residents.
It’s a nice sentiment that they plan on expanding medical access. But after the months spent using medical marijuana as a political playing card, I’ll believe it when I see it.
For me, this isn’t just political posturing or something I cover as part of my job as a reporter here at Patch. It’s personal.
I am one of the 911,000 New Jerseyans that lives with a disability, but because of the barriers unnecessarily put in place by the state, I am not one of the 46,000 that benefits from the medical marijuana program.
I should be the perfect candidate for the program: I’ve tried 22 different pharmaceutical options, several alternative and holistic treatments, and seen just about every type of doctor and had every type of blood test possible. I am young and otherwise healthy, with no history of drug and alcohol abuse (I’ve never even tried marijuana!). My pain prevents me from doing so many of the things abled-bodied people take for granted, like do my hair or wear shoes that aren’t sneakers. Medical marijuana could help ease that pain, but New Jersey’s unnecessarily expensive program make marijuana not a viable option for me— and for so many others like me.
The first big cost associated with the program is getting in to see a doctor. Because marijuana remains federally illegal, any doctor’s appointment concerning medical marijuana doesn’t fall under the scope of insurance. When I was exploring the program, I found that many doctors charged $200 for the first appointment, and then another $100 per appointment— and the state currently requires you visit your doctor every 30, 60, or 90 days. That means you’re looking at between $1,200 and $400 a year just in doctor’s visit costs, on top of the costs of the regular visits typically necessary to manage chronic conditions.
A-10 would have required just one doctor’s visit a year. But that bill was tied up with the passage of medical marijuana, and it still hasn’t been put up for a vote.
Plus, patients must pay a registration fee every time they register for the program. Credit where credit is due: That fee was recently lowered from $200 to $100, and just $20 for those who qualify for other government assistance programs, seniors, and veterans.
Of course, none of these figures include the cost of the actual marijuana itself. New Jersey has some of the most expense medical marijuana in the country, with an ounce of marijuana ranging from $425 to $520. (The cost of black market weed is closer to $350 an ounce.) Those medications that cause suicidal thoughts and tendencies, and addiction? With my insurance, those were just $10 a month.
A-10 would have phased out the 6.625 percent sales tax on medical marijuana, the only medication that’s taxed in the state. But that never happened, because A-10 was tied to recreational pot. And recreational pot was never put up for a vote when it became clear the vote would fail, so A-10 was allowed to languish.
In other states, patients are allowed to grow their own marijuana, a vastly cheaper alternative than heading to the dispensary. In New Jersey, no such provision exists. And with only six dispensaries, that means large swaths of New Jersey’s 46,000 medical marijuana patients don’t live within easy driving distance.
A-10 could have fixed that, with the goal of adding six new dispensaries in currently underserved areas. But lawmakers tied that to the passage of recreational marijuana, so that plan still hasn’t been put into motion.
People living with disabilities are unemployed at much higher rates than typically-abled people, and when we can work, we tend to work fewer hours and for lower pay. Having a disability is expensive, and creates a vicious cycle: you can’t work because of the disability, so you can’t afford a medication that would make working possible. The outrageous pricing structure of medical marijuana just helps keep that cycle going.
I’m lucky that I have a job that I am physically able to work, and a fantastic support system. I’m fortunate that I have top-rate health insurance, and access to some of the best doctors in the world here in New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area. What I’m not lucky enough to have is a treatment plan, or affordable access to medication that could make my life better than the daily struggle it currently is.
Medical marijuana should never have been used to sweeten the deal for legislators lukewarm on the idea of recreational marijuana, especially now that it’s clear that plan was always destined to fail. It should be treated for what it is: a low-risk, holistic medication that can help ease the pain of daily life for the 911,000 New Jerseyans with a disability.
My lawmakers— our lawmakers— have always had the ability to give people like me our lives back. They just didn’t want to.
Katie Kausch is a local editor with Patch in New Jersey. She has lived with a treatment resistant autoimmune disorder that causes chronic pain since 2015.