New Jersey is poised to change some of its medical marijuana regulations to ease access for sick children, and advocates say one of the measures could have a broad impact.
If it gets Assembly approval Monday, the state will no longer limit licensed dispensaries to growing three strains of cannabis.
Currently, only one of six dispensaries selected by the state in 2011 has opened. A second one, located in Egg Harbor Township, is hoping to start serving patients this month.
Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said the change would allow the alternative treatment clinics to provide the types of cannabis most likely to help specific patients with varied conditions. He said research has found that various strains help with different conditions and symptoms: Some control nausea, while others control pain or reduce convulsions.
Lawmakers adopted the change in June as part of a bill inspired by children with a form of epilepsy to knock down some of the state's barriers to young patients getting marijuana. Last month, Gov. Chris Christie issued a conditional veto. He agreed to end the cap on the number of strains that growers can provide and to allow them to sell edible forms of marijuana to young patients. But the governor struck a change that would have let sick children get medical pot with the approval of just one doctor, just like adults. Instead, they will continue to need at least two doctors — and in some cases, three — to sign off.
The state Senate has already adopted his version, and the Assembly is scheduled to vote on it Monday. If the Assembly passes the bill, it goes back to Christie for his signature.
Of the 20 states that have laws allowing medical marijuana, New Jersey is considered to have the strictest regulations.
It has a shorter list of qualifying medical conditions than most of the other states do. It is one of few that make it tougher for qualifying children to get the drug than adults, for instance, and the only one to limit the potency of pot available. None of the other states have capped how many types of marijuana the licensed sellers can produce.
Advocates have criticized the limit on strains since it was proposed three years ago, but it was the story of 2-year-old Vivian Wilson that inspired lawmakers to press to change it.
The Scotch Plains girl's family says it believes her Dravet syndrome — a rare and sometimes deadly form of epilepsy — can be controlled with a strain of marijuana that is high in a compound known as CBD and low in THC, the chemical that gets users high. But with the limit on how many strains New Jersey treatment centers can offer, it appeared unlikely she would be able to get it legally in the state.
But it's not just children who may benefit from having a variety of types of the drug.
"It really gives us a lot more opportunity to start strains that will help people in different ways," said Andrei Bogolubov, a spokesman for Compassionate Sciences, a group that hopes to open a growing facility and dispensary in Bellmawr next year.
He said it also appears that combinations of strains seem to help many patients.
Jahan Marcu, a Philadelphia-based scientist who plans to move to Massachusetts in coming months to run a cannabis-testing lab, said lifting the limit on strains opens up the possibility of combining strains for patients in New Jersey. "People want to tease out individual properties," he said.