Friday, March 6, 2015

VANESSA WALTZ: Testimony to Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee March 2, 2015

My name is Vanessa Waltz, and in 2011 I was treated for Stage III breast cancer in New Jersey. I moved to New Jersey for cancer treatment both because my family lived there, and because I believed the physicians and hospitals in New Jersey were superior to those in New Mexico, where I was living at the time of my diagnosis. I had also read that New Jersey had recently passed a Medical Marijuana law, and I was looking forward to becoming a legal cannabis patient.

Little did I know at the time of my move that more than a year after the passage of the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, there was still no legal access for patients in New Jersey, nor would there be legal access through my months of chemotherapy, radiation, five surgeries, and multiple hospitalizations. I was forced to find cannabis on the black market to alleviate my suffering, rather than making use of the program that should have already been in place.

Four years later, I realize to my great disappointment that the situation for critically ill patients in New Jersey is not much better than it was during my cancer treatment. Despite the fact that New Jersey’s compassionate use program is now active, and there are 3 dispensaries open, the most vulnerable patients are still unable to access cannabis medicine for a variety of reasons.

While I was being treated for cancer, I had regular visits with a primary care physician, an oncologist, a radiologist, a neurologist, a cardiologist, a pain management specialist, a gastroenterologist, a physical therapist, a neuropsychologist, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, and an orthopedist. In addition to being extremely ill, at times bedridden and or in a wheelchair, as you can imagine, my appointments with these physicians and rehabilitation specialists took up a lot of my time and a staggering amount of money, which I believe is typical for patients with a life-threatening illness like mine. None of my physicians signed up for the physician registry, and therefore, even when the program became active toward the end of my treatment, none of them were legally able to recommend me for a medical marijuana card.

How are patients who are experiencing similar illnesses – or worse – supposed to find the time or the money to develop a “bona fide” relationship with yet another physician in order to access the program? When New Jersey’s program was being developed, “doctor shopping” was a big concern among many legislators. Originally conceived in a misguided
attempt to validate the legitimacy of the program, the physician registry in New Jersey has itself created the need for “doctor shopping”.

As a Board Member and Social Media Administrator for the Coalition for Medical Marijuana – New Jersey, I am regularly contacted by critically ill patients facing these obstacles. I called all the doctors in my area in the physician registry, they often tell me, and they require a two year relationship to recommend me for a card...Or, they are not accepting new patients…Or, they require four visits at $250 each before I can get my medical marijuana card.

When I was going through treatment, my days were filled with nausea, migraines, heart arrhythmias, and regular visits to the emergency room. I was unable to work. I was often bedridden. There is no way that I could have found the energy, time, or money required to jump through the hoops that are still TO THIS DAY the average struggle of a critically ill patient attempting to get legal access.

Until the physician registry is removed, the most critically ill patients will continue to face the unnecessary barriers of excessive time, money, and energy needed to join the program.

The lack of patient participation in New Jersey’s program is compounded by the fact that even if patients do jump through the hoops and become a registered card holder, they find that the cannabis available in dispensaries is far more expensive than what can be found on the black market, and that edible products cannot be purchased by adults, and are still not even available for children despite changes in the regulations allowing for their sale. Not to mention the fact that many patients must travel a significant distance to a dispensary, or designate a caregiver at significant financial cost.

Considering this, it is no wonder to me that the number of patients in New Jersey’s program is a mere fraction of what it is in other medical states.  It is no wonder that the dispensaries are struggling financially, or that New Jersey patients only purchased 17 pounds of cannabis in New Jersey dispensaries over a year.

Governor Christie claims that lack of participation in the program proves that there is not a legitimate need for medical marijuana in New Jersey. This is clearly not the case; rather, the need for medical cannabis is not being met for critically ill patients due to the cumbersome and unnecessary red tape and expense involved in becoming a cardholder.

Other states with more active programs are not simply providing patients with medicine for a mild headache, as Governor Christie is fond of claiming. Rather, other more compassionate states are allowing critically ill patients access through their own established physicians without any kind of registry or unnecessary training requirement. Critically ill patients are able to purchase cannabis for fair market prices, and in all kinds of preparations best suited for their individual health issues. Many states allow delivery services for registered patients. And in more compassionate states, patients are able to grow their own cannabis at home, or designate a caregiver to do so for them.

Until New Jersey changes the regulations to make cannabis medicine more affordable and accessible for critically ill patients, the program will continue to operate ineffectively, forcing the most vulnerable patients to choose between spending an inordinate amount of time and money to achieve legal access, suffering without medication, or breaking the law to access black market products. And none of these options are compassionate for patients in New Jersey.

No comments:

Post a Comment