Brown: Long waits at ATCs, but no shortages

Gabrielle Saulsbery//March 21, 2020//

Brown: Long waits at ATCs, but no shortages

Gabrielle Saulsbery//March 21, 2020//

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Alternative treatment centers are subject to longer waits than usual as medical cannabis patients line up to stock up on medicine, ATCs and patients are reporting.

Jeff Brown, assistant commissioner to the state medicinal marijuana program, said it’s not due to a lack of product, but to the same worries that have people stocking up at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Jessie Gill, a registered nurse who focuses her practice on advising medical cannabis patients and is a patient herself, told NJBIZ that patients at Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center were experiencing wait times of up to seven hours Friday. The ATC, which does not open until 10:30 a.m., began turning away patients at the end of a long line of cars around 10 a.m., Gill said.

“Cars are parked on the side of the road and Breakwater dispensary employees are outside and they’re turning people away, telling the cars that they’ve reached their limit for the day,” Gill said. “There usually is wait times already in the best of circumstances, but on top of it, some [ATCs have] cut hours drastically so now you have more people going on these tight hours and people are panicking and trying to get their meds.”

At Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township, Chairman Dave Knowlton said they’re receiving longer than average wait times of approximately one and a half hours compared to the usual 20 minutes.

In accordance with social distancing guidelines put out by the Murphy administration in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, CCF and other ATCs are limiting the number of people that can go inside dispensaries. With a one-in-one-out policy, CCF enacted a queue system beginning last week where people take a number and wait outside or in the parking lot until their number is called. Counseling and consultations are done by phone so as to not take time on site.

From left, CFF Chief Operation Officer Rob Moroni, Genearl Manager Cady Riley and Chair of the Board David Knowlton in Atlantic City.
From left, CFF Chief Operation Officer Rob Moroni, Genearl Manager Cady Riley and Chair of the Board David Knowlton in Atlantic City. – HAL BROWN

Knowlton called the queue at CCF “a pretty efficient system,” and also noted, “We’ve had conference calls with the other ATC owners and offered to help any way that we could, and they’ve offered to help us. Everybody is working together really well.”

Rise Dispensaries in Paterson, which reports no wait times, is limiting the reception area to four patients at a time, and according to Gill, patients are receiving their medicine outside at Breakwater. Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, which is reporting longer than average wait times of 45 minutes to an hour, is also limiting the number of patients in their waiting room at a given time.

“We’ve been actively working with the industry for a couple weeks to help them put in social distancing provisions so employees and patients are kept safe,” Brown said.

ATCs have to balance these provisions with employee shortages due to children being out of school and other factors associated with the current pandemic, he said.

Making it work

The Department of Health has set up an expedited process to help ATCs address bottlenecking, Brown said, and is working on “some things to help patients use caregivers more” that will be out “today or Monday,” he said. Medical cannabis patients in New Jersey are permitted two caregivers who can pick up their medicine for them, and per the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, immediate family members are not required to pass background checks. Patients can also apply for a waiver to have an additional caregiver, which “we would be inclined to grant at a time like this,” Brown said.

Jeff Brown, head of NJ Department of Health medical marijuana program.

The DOH, which Brown said is dealing with its own workforce issues, is “doing our best to expedite what we can.” To deal with lines, one ATC developed an app that allows people, to stand in a virtual line so that they don’t have to wait in a physical line until they’re called, and the DOH approved a waiver for that.

As ATCs deal with their workforce issues, the DOH is expediting new employees by permitting them to start working after approval of a third party background check, rather than making them wait for a state background check that takes longer.

Still, patient wait times are a concern for Gill, who as a patient herself has been self-isolating with cold-like symptoms and doesn’t have a caregiver to pick up her medicine. “I’m freaking out,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” She cites home delivery with porch pick-up as a remedy for patients who can’t subject themselves to long wait times in public, and telehealth for all patients as a remedy for those who need a re-up on their medical cannabis recommendations.

“Patients right now are running out of recommendations, they need their renewals,” Gill said. “A lot of doctor’s offices don’t want to see patients and these patients really shouldn’t be going to doctor’s offices right now.”