SOMERS POINT — If Eileen Konieczny knew 20 years ago what she knows now about marijuana’s benefits for cancer patients, she would have made sure her mother, dying of pancreatic cancer, got some even when it was illegal in New Jersey, she said.
“All she wanted was for food to taste good,” Konieczny said, pausing to catch her breath. “That’s all this woman wanted.”
Konieczny, a registered nurse and president of the American Cannabis Nurses Association, and other leaders in medical marijuana spoke to experts last week at Greate Bay Country Club about expanding access and loosening policies that make New Jersey’s program the most strictly regulated in the country.
Five medical marijuana dispensaries, including Compassionate Care in Egg Harbor Township, are operational. They distributed more than 2,691 pounds of medical marijuana in 2016.
The education event was sponsored by Compassionate Sciences ATC, a medical marijuana dispensary in Bellmawr, Camden County.
The state has issued more than 11,600 medical marijuana ID cards to patients and caregivers since 2012, with an uptick in approved applications last year, according to a new state Department of Health report.
However, only about 310 state physicians out of about 28,000 are actively referring patients for the program, the report showed. Experts say patient need and demand are outpacing physician knowledge about medical marijuana.
“We’re seeing patients turn to people outside of the medical field for information on medical marijuana, and that breaks trust between us and patients,” Konieczny said. “People become afraid of judgment, afraid their practitioner will no longer treat them if they want medical cannabis.”
Ken Wolski, registered nurse and CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, said while getting a medical marijuana law passed in 2010 was a big step, execution of the law needs work. He said advocates are pushing for several things to improve accessibility for patients and physicians.
Those changes include allowing nurse practitioners the ability to prescribe cannabis, permitting adults to get edible forms of medical marijuana, which is now prescribed only to children, and having continuous training for law enforcement to understand protections for card-carrying patients.
Wolski said workplace protections are needed.
“What’s the point of using medical marijuana to get well enough to go to work and then being fired because you’re using medical marijuana?” he asked.
Wolski said one of the biggest hurdles the state program faces is the limits on which conditions are eligible for medical marijuana. Conditions including multiple sclerosis, ALS, Crohn’s disease, HIV infection, cancer and other illnesses qualify, with provisions, under the program. But advocates say it’s a limited list.
Progress was made when Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in September adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions. Since then, 466 patients have gotten treatment with medical marijuana for PTSD, according to the health department.
The most common conditions treated in the state’s program are severe or chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disease, terminal cancer, intractable skeletal spasticity and multiple sclerosis, reports show.
Dr. Andrew Medvedovsky, neurologist and director at New Jersey Alternative Medicine, which has practices in Somers Point and Galloway Township, said feedback from patients who opt into the program has been positive. He said addressing stigma is key in getting patients and physicians to participate.
“Cannabis is not a miracle. It doesn’t replace conventional therapy, but it can really help,” he said.