Amy Marie Keller dislocates up to 100 joints each day.
The 46-year-old, who suffers from the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, is nearly homebound, in constant pain, and uses a cane to walk on the few days she goes out. Her body doesn’t produce collagen correctly, which causes her fingers to bend backward when she taps a smartphone and her skin to easily bruise.
Keller is allergic to opioids, epinephrine, and fragrances. The only thing that helps her symptoms is marijuana with high THC content. Since October 2013, Keller has depended on New Jersey’s medical marijuana market to live her daily life.
Now that New Jersey’s medical cannabis sector is expanding to recreational users, Keller fears she won’t be able to obtain the amount of marijuana she needs. During an interview, she broke down in tears.
“I’m afraid I’m going to die because I don’t have access to my medication and I don’t have a black market connect,” she said. “I’m so scared.”
Keller is one of 130,000 medical marijuana patients in New Jersey grappling with the state’s decision to allow 13 medical dispensaries to begin serving recreational patients, a move intended to jumpstart the state’s adult-use market. The state expects 830,000 recreational users to join the market once it launches in the coming weeks after dispensaries secure the necessary permits.
The state Cannabis Regulatory Commission approved medical dispensaries, also known as alternative treatment centers, to sell weed for any adult 21 years or over as long as those dispensaries prioritize patients. During Monday’s commission meeting, dispensary representatives explained they would implement exclusive hours, special parking for patients, home delivery, and more. One company said they’d keep one of their facilities open for medical use marijuana only.
But patients like Keller fear the market they depend on for medicine will be saturated with people flooding dispensaries in search of legal recreational marijuana.
“I’m advising people to stock up now on their weed because I expect there to be a run on it. As soon as the first one opens up, medical patients won’t even be able to access it anymore,” said Peter Rosenfeld, a medical marijuana patient since 2011 involved with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey and the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association.
Alternative treatment centers already have trouble keeping up with demand from medical patients, he said. Thirteen dispensaries won’t be enough to handle nearly 1 million new consumers, he said, not to mention the people who will come from neighboring states were legal sales haven’t started.
“They’re springboarding off the medical program, which is barely able to keep up as is,” he said. “If they were going to license new dispensaries for recreational, that would be different.”
The state has said the would-be retailers applying for licenses to open recreational dispensaries are not ready yet.
Rosenfeld wants a slow transition period, one that would limit recreational sales to twice a week and gradually increase the amount as we learn how many people the market can serve. He said it might take up to three years for the medical and recreational markets to function smoothly.
The biggest concern for patients is supply, said Ken Wolski, executive director for the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. But he said he’s optimistic the Cannabis Regulatory Commission wouldn’t move forward with recreational cannabis sales without ensuring everyone’s needs will be met.
“There’s definitely anxieties, but I think the CRC is doing a good job and have evaluated it very closely,” he said. “I personally don’t think the patient population is going to be terribly impacted, but I’ve been wrong before.”
During the CRC’s March 24 meeting, the panel declined to move forward with approving recreational sales, saying dispensaries were 100,000 pounds short of the cannabis needed for the increased demand. Lawmakers criticized the commission for the inaction and said they’d host hearings focused on any delays.
But Jeff Brown, the commission’s executive director, said at Monday’s meetings the medical dispensaries proved they could meet the demand of both medical and recreational users.
“We’ve been monitoring supply and I can tell you the supply in the market is increasing every month. The amount of cannabis and cannabis products in the market is going up,” he said.
Matt Darin is president of CuraLeaf, a medical dispensary that has locations in Bellmawr, Bordentown, and Edgewater. Darin said his firm has plans for a call center and webinar to offer information on medical payments, special daily hours just for medical patients, and exclusive lines and cashiers. The facility is also increasing staff and parking spaces, he said.
“We’ve been preparing many months for this, we’ve tripled our cultivation capacity in the state. We have more than ample supply of available product to service the medical and recreational market … In the event of any shortage of products, we will prioritize our medical patients,” he said.
Keller doesn’t have faith that everyone will get the medicine they need under the combined markets. She said she needs specific strains to be able to function in her daily life, and won’t be able to stock up since she usually reaches her three-ounce monthly limit, set by state law.
Some of the updated changes like early hours and exclusive parking won’t help her, she said. She can’t stand for long so she can’t wait in line, and she can’t drive so she depends on her 75-year-old father for rides.
“The way this has been decided, it feels almost evil. Like, let’s screw the medical patients over and pull the rug out from under them,” she said. “I’m praying very hard that something will change and someone will listen to us.”
Both Keller and Rosenfeld noted medical users have been asking for delivery services since the pandemic started, but it’s only being implemented now as the recreational market begins sales.
“Money is the big driver. Simple things that would help patients a lot, we get no cooperation from the state,” Rosenfeld said.
This report was published with permission of the New Jersey Monitor.