Experts discuss medical marijuana on WO panel

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
From left, Mark Moon, Dr. Monica Taing, Hugh O’Beirne and Charlana McKeithen speak on a panel at West Orange High School about medical marijuana.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown hosted a forum about medical marijuana at West Orange High School on Sept. 25, providing the public an opportunity to hear from panelists about the updated state medical marijuana laws and how they will affect zoning laws in West Orange. On the panel was Mark Moon, an attorney for the township; Monica Taing, a doctor of pharmacy; Hugh O’Beirne, president of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association; and Charlana McKeithen, executive director of Garden State NORML, a regional chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act in July, thereby increasing the amount of marijuana that patients with a medical card can purchase, removing limits for terminally ill patients and legalizing edible forms of the drug. The act is named after Jake Honig, a 7-year-old Howell resident who died of brain cancer and who used medical marijuana near the end of his life for pain relief.

Medical marijuana was legalized in New Jersey in 2010 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine, and the Jake Honig Act expands the program to include more diseases that qualify patients for a medical card. Moon explained at the forum that because more medical marijuana dispensaries will now be allowed to open, West Orange has to change its zoning laws to allow for them.

“The zoning would have to be adjusted to account for that,” Moon said, describing the four different types of dispensaries. The first sells medical marijuana directly to patients; the second type is the cultivator, which only grows marijuana, the third is the wholesale retailer and the fourth is a combination of the first three. The zoning ordinance, which can be customized by the Township Council, will address where in town dispensaries will be permitted to open, how far away from schools they must be, and consumption zones.

“We can create designated consumption zones where patients can go if they aren’t able to use it at home,” Moon said. “When looking at this, it was pretty clear to me that they shouldn’t be in residential zones, so we have to decide if they should be in business districts or industrial zones. You can create a radius, so you can’t have them within a certain distance from school or have more than one next to each other. We’re not looking do something drastic or dramatic; we’re just looking to match the statute.”

Taing described who qualifies for a medical marijuana card when she spoke on the panel: people with anxiety, ALS, HIV/AIDS, migraines, muscular dystrophy and cancer, among other diseases. Doctors who certify a person to get a medical marijuana card must be licensed by the state.

“THC has the psychedelic properties, but that’s one of the hundreds of chemicals in a marijuana plant,” Taing said. “For medicinal purposes, patients need CBD more than THC and a lot of people don’t know that.”

CBD does not have psychedelic properties and often helps those with anxiety and chronic pain.

Taing also touched on the reasons medical marijuana has been so expensive and inaccessible for patients in New Jersey, something O’Beirne also discussed.

“More and more knowledge is coming about medical marijuana, anecdotally and clinically,” O’Beirne said at the event. “We have cases like Jake, who couldn’t get it when other medication was ineffective. We’ve seen relaxation on this medication and who is allowed to have this medication, as well as more doctors prescribing it. But our supply hasn’t grown. So that puts us slightly behind Connecticut as having the most expensive medical marijuana in the country.”

The act, which Murphy signed into law July 2, expands the medical marijuana program, but McKeithen said there are still issues that have not been resolved.

“If you have a gun permit, you can’t have a medical card,” she said at the event. “Medical marijuana can cost $400 and some people’s income is $780 a month, so for some, you just can’t pay for it. The taxes should be phased out because medicine should not be taxed. The cards are limited to within this state, so if you have to travel you can’t take your medicine with you. And with housing, if you’re a renter, you could lose your home.”

Taing said that insurance doesn’t cover medical marijuana because doctors don’t prescribe it; instead, doctors certify that patient qualifies for it. O’Beirne said that, because medical marijuana laws were so strict before the Jake Honig Act was instituted, it drove up the price of the medicine due to the small supply available. Patients are only able to pay for it in cash or with a debit card.

“Credit card companies like Visa and American Express decided the federal restrictions make them untenable to use,” O’Beirne said. “So cash, yes, debit cards, yes. But there are fees with debit cards sometimes, so you can tack on another 10 or 20 bucks to something that cost you $500, to treat ALS or cancer.”

Moon clarified that the draft of the zoning ordinance has not yet been completed, and the council members will be working with the legal department and the public to write and approve it. He said that West Orange isn’t taking a stance in favor of or against medical marijuana; the township is just making the municipal zoning laws match the state statute.

“I’m sure there will be litigation about a dispensary wanting to move in and a town not wanting it,” Moon said. “But I think a town saying that would be a difficult position to take. With recreational marijuana that might be different, but the state has recognized it as a legitimate form of medicine. I think it’s going to be a challenge for a town to say, “We don’t want a medical marijuana dispensary to come here.’”