With the state’s medical marijuana program’s growing number of patients — now surpassing 77,000 — coupled by the coronavirus outbreak, there has been a heightened demand for more dispensaries to open sooner than later. Patients who rushed out to stock up on medicine immediately after the state was shutdown found themselves in hours-long lines at several alternative treatment centers (or ATCs). The ATCs in operation quickly responded with state guidelines for curbside pickup, but as Assistant Health Commissioner Jeff Brown told NJ Cannabis Insider, “more needs to be done.” Brown, who was keynote speaker at Cannabis Insider’s March conference, spared some time for us recently to discuss how the program he oversees is adapting to life under the coronavirus pandemic-driven rules, and whether we’d see more ATCs opening up any time soon. This conversation, which first appeared in the May 7 edition of NJ Cannabis Insider, was slightly edited for clarity.
Q: The pandemic ushered in some new innovations for patients and dispensaries, including curbside pickup. How do you think these changes are being received by patients? Are they satisfied?
There was a period where we were seeing a lot of complaints from patients. They were centered around mostly one ATC that had instituted a system in which people showed up in the morning to get tickets and either had to wait in line in their cars or come back. Some were reporting four-hour wait times. We worked with them, they put a plan in place to get wait times down and they have done so successfully. When we saw those wait times decrease, we saw complaints really drop off a ledge.
Over the last month, actually, we are seeing ATCs are serving on average 50 more patients a day than they were a month ago, and wait times for ATCs showing up on the same day are averaging 30 minutes. Many are well below that. More patients are being served and wait times are less. We are still in the pandemic and there are issues there. We are making progress but we know more needs to be done.
Is home delivery still a viable idea on the table? What is happening behind the scenes and how is the DOH making this happen?
We are still working on it. We hope to have good news soon.
There was a spike in enrollment soon after the governor shutdown the state. Has that continued?
No, it has not. March ended with 4,800 new patients; April ended with 3,300 patients signed up, which is back to where we were at the end of the summer 2019. It’s still a significant increase in patients.
People have been staying home since we saw the increase in March. Doctors’ offices seeing outpatients are largely closed or just doing telemedicine or focusing on their most at-risk patients.
What are the department’s priorities for the medical marijuana program during this crisis? Are we on track toward opening up more dispensaries?
A: One of the things I have challenged the ATCs on is really upping the average patients served per ATC and basically getting it up to 350 patients a day. That would get us to ensure every patient who goes to the ATC once a month, we have capacity to see everybody. We also want to make sure there is the ability for new patients to get in quickly. Most ATCs are seeing new patients; there is one that is not open to new patients — that’s Breakwater — but we are working with them to get that changed.
We looked at some of the busier ATCs and among that cohort, (350 patients) seemed to be a manageable number. It’s a goal. With curbside pickup, some might not be able to get there. Some ATCs are doing more than that, some are doing less.
Related to the new dispensaries, they have seen some delays with construction. Even though ATC-related construction is essential, contractors don’t always have that same view. There were some who had to replace the contractors they were working with. Municipal governments, like businesses, are faced with the same challenges, so getting things like certificates of occupancy has been slowed down a little bit. We are going to see the new round of dispensaries from 2018, since all the cultivations are now approved, we are going to see the new dispensaries opening up very soon.
How do you think the ATCs are performing overall since the outbreak? Are there supply issues?
They have done really well. It’s been challenging for all involved. They had employees testing positive. In addition to that, they are dealing with the same workforce issues that everybody still trying to conduct business is dealing with. Schools are closed, parents need to be home to watch kids with daycares closed. With all that said, they have done a really good job managing those challenges and staying open and ensuring they are there for patients.
The thing that happens is some ATCs run out of particular strains. There are in-demand strains. They come to market and sell out. That was an issue prior to the pandemic and it will be an issue after the pandemic. Overall supply, though, is up. At the beginning of the public health emergency, we were up to 8,000 pounds weekly in the market, (across all ATCs). That dropped to 7,500 pounds a couple weeks ago, and now it’s back up to 8,300.
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Susan K. Livio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio.