ATLANTIC CITY — As more patients join the state’s expanding medical marijuana program, there is a greater need for more physicians to participate.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal told hospital administrators, doctors, nurses, social workers and others at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, about how medical marijuana is a safe and effective treatment that should be considered as a tool in care.

“I hope I can convince more physicians to at least participate or consider enrolling in this program,” he said at the city hospital Wednesday.

More than 39,200 state residents and 874 doctors participate in the program, according to the most recent state data. That means there is about one doctor for every 45 patients seeking medical marijuana for qualified conditions.

In the past year, more health conditions have been added, dispensaries can now add satellite locations, another six dispensaries were recently approved — including one in Atlantic City — and annual program costs were lowered, making it easier and more appealing for people to join.

Now there’s a demand to get more doctors on board, Elnahal said. The AtlantiCare visit was the eighth medical marijuana grand rounds lecture in a statewide tour.

State program officials have publicized the benefits of medical marijuana from patient and provider perspectives, especially the less severe adverse effects when compared to opioids, benzodiazepines and steroids.

But there continues to be gaps and holes in medical research, making physicians wary of recommending the therapy. Medical marijuana is a Schedule I drug and therefore not eligible to get federal funding for research.

“A big criticism some physicians have is, where is the evidence?” Elnahal said. “We do need more research. The evidence is not as strong as we’d like it to be.”

The lack of evidence on specific outcomes for psychiatric disorders is concerning, said Dr. Inua Momodu, chairman of AtlantiCare’s department of psychiatry. He said other medication therapies have historically strong evidence in successfully treating patients.

Elnahal said there may be many times when medical marijuana would not be the first-line treatment, but physicians should be able to offer it as an option to compliment treatment or use if nothing else works.

Another health care worker who attended the lecture remotely said some of his patients were worried about using medical marijuana and getting drug screened at work. Currently, people are not protected, Elnahal said, but he hopes pending state legislation will address that.

Going forward, the state plans to create separate opportunities for permits to dispense, process and cultivate marijuana, and hopes to eliminate the 10 percent THC limit in products, Elnahal said. It would also be good for more dispensaries to make and sell oral and edible products, he said.

The state Medical Marijuana Review Panel is also considering adding opioid use disorder as a condition. Currently, only people who developed the disorder after getting prescribed opioid medications for chronic pain qualify.

“We hope to announce soon that (medical marijuana) could be used in conjunction with medication-assisted treatments for opioid use disorder,” Elnahal said.

The long-term goal is to get more physicians into the program and make sure they are being held responsible for participating correctly, which does not include charging patients extra out-of-pocket for doctor visits that can and should be billed through insurance, Elnahal said.

“To ask for cash can be an incredible burden for patients,” Assistant Commissioner Jeff Brown said. “If we do get to (recreational) adult use and we’re charging patients a lot out of pocket, they’re just not going to come to us anymore.”

Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

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