Having campaigned on a pledge to fully legalize marijuana, Gov. Philip D. Murphy took the first step toward expanding access to the drug in New Jersey on Tuesday, signing an executive order that would ease regulations on the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in 2010, but Mr. Murphy’s predecessor, Chris Christie, a Republican, kept tight limits on the drug, including on which conditions could qualify for prescriptions.
The new executive order directs the New Jersey Department of Health to conduct a 60-day study of the state’s medical marijuana program with a focus on how to increase access to it. The review will seek to lift restrictions on doctors in the state who prescribe the drug, review the number of conditions for which the drug can be prescribed, consider the possibility of offering edible marijuana products, and allow more dispensaries to open in the state.
Before signing the order, Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, criticized the Christie administration’s approach.
“The system we have inherited can best be described as medical marijuana in name only,” Mr. Murphy said during an event in Trenton. “With a hostile administration tugging the strings of state bureaucracy, the ability of dispensaries to open has been slow-footed. Doctors have faced stigmatization for participating. And nonsmokable and edible products that could benefit patients have been blocked from the market.”
Since the law was enacted, only five dispensaries have opened in New Jersey, and about 15,000 people have access to medical marijuana. Mr. Murphy drew a contrast with Michigan, which he said had given 218,000 people access to medical marijuana in a similar time frame.
“The roadblocks put in place by the past administration mean that the law’s spirit has been stifled,” Mr. Murphy said. “We’re not much further along in responding to the needs of patients than we were in January of 2010.”
Mr. Christie, who made much of his focus in his final year in office combating the opioid epidemic, viewed marijuana as a “gateway drug” and was strongly opposed to any type of legalization. Medical marijuana is often prescribed to help patients cope with chronic pain, among other ailments, and it was recently allowed as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in many states, including New Jersey and New York.
During his campaign for governor, Mr. Murphy framed the full legalization of marijuana as a social justice issue. He argued that legalization would help reduce low-level drug prosecutions, which often ensnare black and Latino defendants in disproportionate numbers, and that it would decrease the state’s prison population.
He also pointed to legal marijuana as a potential revenue source — his campaign estimated that taxing the drug could result in about $300 million in revenues — that could form a cornerstone of his economic agenda.
“A stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces comprehensive criminal justice reform — including a process to legalize marijuana,” Mr. Murphy said in his inaugural address.
But since he has taken office, several state legislators have expressed skepticism about full legalization, and the immediate future of recreational marijuana in New Jersey remains uncertain.
Mr. Murphy’s neighbor across the Hudson River, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, will be closely watching how New Jersey progresses on the issue. New York already has a medical marijuana program, with roughly 20 dispensaries open and many more scheduled to open soon.
In his budget address earlier this month, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said that he would direct his administration to study “the health impact, the economic impact, the state of the law,” as well as how New York would be affected if neighboring states legalized recreational marijuana, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, which passed a referendum in 2016.
Mr. Murphy did not take any questions from reporters on Tuesday and said nothing about full legalization. Still, advocates for legalization viewed his directive on medical marijuana as a positive step.
“Legalization is coming to New Jersey, and part of that process includes examination of our deeply flawed, outdated and often unfair medical cannabis program,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The current medical cannabis system forces patients through unnecessary hoops and leads to their suffering.”