Home FEATURED Your NJ medical marijuana could be covered by taxpayers under these measures

Your NJ medical marijuana could be covered by taxpayers under these measures

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Zen Leaf, a medical marijuana dispensary in Neptune, opens its doors for business. A wide variety of marijuana strains are available from the dispensary. Neptune, NJ Friday, April 16, 2021

Mike Davis
Asbury Park Press

TRENTON — In a state where medical marijuana is often more expensive than flying to another state and buying it there, patients registered with some financial assistance programs could see their weed costs covered. 

The cost of New Jersey medical marijuana, among the highest of any state in the country, would be covered for patients enrolled in four different financial assistance programs meant to help children, seniors, crime victims and those with disabilities, under identical bills already approved by the Senate and Assembly health committees.

The bills, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D- Middlesex, and Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D- Burlington, could be voted on as soon as this week. 

Under the legislation, patients in these programs could only have to pay a small copay for medical marijuana or have their costs covered: 

  • Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund
  • Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled (PAAD)
  • Senior Gold Prescription Discount
  • Victims of Crime Compensation Office

“The cost of cannabis can run into the hundreds of dollars per month for individuals,” Conaway said. “This bill serves those who are financially distressed and … ensures the benefits of medical cannabis are available to all who may need it.” 

Patients enrolled in PAAD, which helps seniors and residents with disabilities who can’t afford prescription drugs, would pay a $7 copay.

Enrollees in the Senior Gold program would pay a copay of $15 plus 50% of the remaining cost of the medical marijuana. If the Senior Gold member has already spent $2,000 out-of-pocket, or $3,000 for married couples, the copay is just $15, under Vitale and Conaway’s bill. 

“Patients in New Jersey who gain relief from pain or discomfort through the use of medical cannabis cut across a wide swath of our population, and yet the cost of the drug can be exorbitantly expensive for many people who rely on it most,” Vitale said in a statement.

The bill would allow the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund and VCCO to cover the cost of medical marijuana for qualified patients. 

The VCCO covers or reimburses the cost of medical bills, mental health counseling, loss of earnings and other expenses for people who are the victim of a violent crime.

The Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund covers medical expenses due to a child’s illness or condition if it’s not covered by insurance and expenses exceed 10% of a family’s annual income. 

The bill aims to fill in the gaps for those who can’t afford medical marijuana, which runs as high as $500 per ounce in New Jersey, but are otherwise able to have medical expenses covered or reimbursed.  

Marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug, with no medicinal value, by the federal government, which means it can’t be covered by any federal program or any program even remotely linked to federal funding — such as health or medical insurance. 

“We’re waiting for insurance coverage for this particular therapeutic but, not having that, we’re moving forward,” Conaway said. “They are state-run programs with state-run dollars only, so there’s no implication of any federal program or action.” 

The four programs included in his and Vitale’s bill are exclusively organized and funded by the state. President Joe Biden’s administration has appeared to follow the policies of the last two presidential administrations and take a hands-off approach with states that have legalized weed. 

The cost of medical marijuana, which can run as high as $500 per ounce, has been a bone of contention for the state’s rapidly expanding patient population, which now numbers nearly 111,000, according to the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. 

There are only 19 medical marijuana dispensaries across the state but they’re operated by only 11 individual companies or nonprofits. The ratio of 5,800 patients per dispensary is among the highest of the 34 states with active medical marijuana programs, leading to a supply-and-demand issues that patients say have left them empty-handed or paying hand over fist since the first sales occurred nearly a decade ago.

That issue has only been exacerbated since 2018, when new medical marijuana laws eased qualification requirements and expanded the number of eligible conditions. The patient population has increased eight-fold in less than four years.

The Cannabis Regulatory Commission is expected to issue new medical marijuana dispensary licenses in the coming months after a series of court cases were resolved earlier this year. 

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