A young man sat in the back row of the Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel hearing Wednesday morning, swaying side to side and making small noises his mother tried to hush.
The pair came to Trenton to share their story in front of cannabis patients, doctors and advocates, many of whom had to stand or wait outside the room.
Choking back tears, Susan O’Mullen described how her family has been in “pure hell” as a result of her 23-year-old son’s debilitating medical conditions: severe autism, epilepsy, migraines and chronic pain.
Recently, he suffered brain swelling as a result of a 6-minute grand mal seizure. O’Mullen overheard doctors in the emergency room saying her son “would be better off dead,” she said.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to help future generations,” the New Jersey mother added.
A chorus of frustration echoed O’Mullen’s testimony as dozens of patients petitioned to add chronic pain and other debilitating ailments to the list of conditions eligible for New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.
Currently, cannabis is only available to people suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, muscular dystrophy, Crohn's disease or any terminal illness.
Gov. Chris Christie added PTSD to the list in September, however cannabis treatment must come after traditional methods of therapy and medication have been exhausted.
This qualification is a problem for veteran Leo Bridgewater Sr., a Trenton native who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as both a soldier and a contractor. It was during his military years that Bridgewater developed PTSD and chronic pain from a knee injury. Several surgeries and many therapy sessions later, Bridgewater is convinced that forcing veterans to seek pharmaceutical treatment for depression or mental health issues is only exacerbating the problem.
“Guys don’t want to touch those pills. We hear about it even before getting out, so we know. When you make it to where it’s a requirement before you can get to medical marijuana, that’s a problem,” he said.
Bridgewater testified before the state senate committee last year to add PTSD to the list of eligible conditions. He pointed to suicide rates among former service members, which is 32 percent higher than the general population, and how that speaks to the inadequacy of current mental health care practices. Doctors should reconsidered putting veterans on opioids or other heavy medication, he said.
“We have 20 to 22 guys take their lives every day,” Bridgewater said. “So what are we going to do about it?”
Now in its seventh year, New Jersey continues to grapple with implementation of its medical marijuana program. It lags behind other states with similar laws in both access and eligibility, and is the most expensive program in the country. Currently, people suffering from conditions such as chronic pain, lupus and Lyme disease cannot entire the program legally.
This is the first time since 2010 that the health department has considered adding more conditions. In 2014, a state judge ordered the Christie administration to issue an annual report as the first step in expanding the existing program. That ruling came after a patient and physician filed a lawsuit arguing medical marijuana was taking too long to implement.
“It’s a shame that we have to drag patients into a room to beg for their lives,” said Lucky Grimes, who suffers from chronic pain and is frustrated by his lack of legal access to cannabis.
“When you say cannabis, the first thing that pops into people's minds is Cheech and Chong. But these are people’s lives we’re talking about.”