July-8-2019

NJ medical marijuana expands; here’s how it helped Howell boy dying of brain cancer

Below is an article written by Michael Diamond and published by the Asbury Park Press on July 2, 2019.

 

FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Gov. Phil Murphy Tuesday signed a bill that overhauls New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, eliminating restrictions that advocates said threw wrenches in patients’ bids to find relief.

The Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act increases the amount of marijuana patients can purchase each month from 2 ounces to 3 ounces; removes limits for terminally ill patients; and legalizes edible forms of the drug.

“Our biggest obstacle was running out of medicine, something that no parent should ever have to endure,” said Mike Honig, a Howell resident whose son, Jake, died at age 7 of brain cancer and is the bill’s namesake.

“Your child goes through everything that’s asked. Surgeries. Radiation. Chemotherapy. And then when it comes time where you can no longer save his life, all you can do is keep him comfortable, you should be allowed to do that.”

Murphy signed the bill at Tommy’s Tavern + Tap, a local restaurant, in front of dozens onlookers, many of whom were Honig’s friends and family wearing #belikejake T-shirts.

The legislation stops short of making good on Murphy’s goal of legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. But it gave the Democratic governor a reprieve from a debate over the budget and tax incentives that has split his party.

The Honig bill didn’t travel a straight line either. But it passed the Assembly, 66-to-5, and it passed the Senate, 31-to-5. And the lawmakers effusively praised each other for their hard work.

“The supply-demand imbalance is really starting to choke us,” Murphy said. “We can do only so much through executive action. We needed legislation to really open this up.”

New Jersey legalized medical marijuana nearly 10 years ago, and it rolled out the program slowly, leaving some patients needing to drive an hour to the nearest dispensary and to dig deep into their pocketbooks to keep their registration cards up to date.

The Murphy administration has set out to expand the program in part by increasing the number of illnesses that qualify for medical marijuana. The number of New Jerseyans enrolled in the program during Murphy’s tenure has expanded from 17,000 people to 47,000.

The Honigs made it clear that the program wasn’t easy to use. When Jake would run out of medical marijuana, his parents would have to give him morphine and oxycodone to manage the pain, leaving their son with what they said were devastating side effects.

Their story caught the attention of Morgan Dias, 18, who reached out to her aunt, Assemblywoman Joann Downey. The Monmouth County Democrat introduced the bill, naming it after Honig.

“This new law is a win for compassion, for leadership, and for the quality of life for every person that it benefits,” she said.

In addition to changes in the amount of medical marijuana patients can purchase, the bill also allows patients to be recertified for the program every year instead of quarterly, as was required by the former law.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Health Department on Monday put out a request for applications to operate up to 24 alternative treatment centers to be almost evenly divided among the northern, central and southern parts of the state. Applications are due Aug. 15.

When Murphy took office, the state had five alternative treatment centers, which grow, manufacture and sell marijuana. One more has opened since then. Another six were approved last year by the Health Department, but have yet to open.

Not that it is clear sailing. Some municipalities have opposed the idea of dispensaries in their neighborhoods, worried in part, observers have said, that a medical marijuana center will simply be a precursor to recreational weed.

Mike Honig said Tuesday that he has begun speaking to municipal officials to try to sway them.

He told a teary-eyed audience the story of Jake, who was first diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 2, living through remissions and relapses, undergoing two surgeries, 61 rounds of radiation and 20 rounds of chemotherapy.

His parents near the end gave their son drugs that seemed to cause more pain; Jake once scratched his chest until he bled, Mike Honig said.

But when they gave him medical marijuana, they saw a change. Jake’s pain subsided. He ate and drank. He played video games and watched movies.

week before he died, using only cannabis, Jake sat on the couch with his family on January night, watching the movie “Frozen” and dipping waffle fries into a Wendy’s Frosty, Mike Honig said.

“We were so happy he had a moment of happiness,” Jake’s father said. “We knew we were living in a special moment that medical marijuana allowed us to have. And he shoves me and he says, ‘Hey bro,’ and I go, ‘What?'”

“And he’s hysterical. And he goes, ‘The snowman’s talking.’ And I go, ‘Olaf, he’s pretty cool.’ And I’ll never forget. I heard it subtly in my ear. And he took another waffle fry, and he said, ‘This is great.'”

Michael L. Diamond is a reporter who covers the New Jersey economy and health care. He can be reached at 732-643-4038; mdiamond@gannettnj.com; and @mdiamondapp.

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