Advocates for medical marijuana say they are not surprised by a slow start for the registry of patients eligible to access the drug legally in the state.
The state Department of Health said Wednesday that since the registry opened on Aug. 9, 18 patients have signed up for permission to use the drug, which is otherwise illegal.
Under New Jersey's procedures, a patient can submit an application only after a physician has declared he or she meets the qualifications. The state says 44 patients have been declared eligible by doctors so far.
The number of early registrations is far lower than Arizona, where 718 people applied to use medical marijuana in the first week the program opened there in April 2011.
The Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey says the state's list of conditions is too restrictive, the prices of medical marijuana will be too expensive, the drug in the program will be too weak and too few doctors are registered to recommend pot to patients.
"Patients meanwhile are going on the underground market," said Chris Goldstein, a spokesman for the advocacy group. "It's not like they're not accessing medicine out there." He said patients who want legal protections for using pot would be better off moving to a state with a less restrictive program, such as Rhode Island or Maine.
Vanessa Waltz, a board member for the organization, said she has contacted 115 of the roughly 150 doctor's offices that have signed up to recommend cannabis. She said 23 told her they were accepting new patients — and insurance plans. An equal number said they were not interested in recommending pot. Ten, she said, said they would take new patients and consider marijuana recommendations — but the patients would have to pay cash.
While the state hasn't been swamped with applications, there are indications that interest is high. Between Aug. 9 and Tuesday, about 8,400 people visited the state's medical marijuana website.
New Jersey patients with certain conditions, including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma, can qualify to use marijuana, which alleviates nausea and pain.
Patients will have to pay $200 for their registration cards, which are good for two years. Those on public assistance, such as Medicare and Medicaid, will have to pay $20.
The state's first legal dispensary, Greenleaf Compassion Center, is expected to open to patients next month in Montclair.
Greenleaf is one of six nonprofit groups approved by the state last year to grow and dispense pot to patients. Only one other group has announced approvals for a site.
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