His bedroom bears all the telltale signs: the distinct, lingering odor of marijuana, the rolling papers tossed carelessly on the desk, a pile of lighters stashed in a bedside table. Christiane Oliveri pulls open her son Michael's desk drawer and there it is, plain as day -- nearly half a pound of marijuana.
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Michael, 25, who suffered deep depression as a child due to the onset of debilitating muscular dystrophy, recently moved out to California and has come home to Oradell, in northern New Jersey, for his sister's wedding. The drugs, the smoking, the marijuana leaves plastered on the back of his wheelchair -- this is Christiane Oliveri's new reality. And she hopes it stays that way.
As New Jersey lawmakers consider legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, residents like Oliveri, a 54-year-old architect and artist from Egypt who says marijuana use transformed her son from a morose zombie into a self-confident, sky-diving optimist, are championing the cause.
At 5-foot-11, Michael Oliveri, who has been wheelchair-bound since the age of 18, weighs just 90 pounds -- "Ninety-five since he came home," Christiane Oliveri says proudly. "We're going for 100." His upper body is so skeletal, it seems dwarfed in proportion to his head. His bicep and tricep muscles have died, leaving his upper arms half the size of his forearms and making it impossible to straighten his arms completely.
Years of taking powerful prescription medications to ease pain from crushed discs in Michael's lower back have damaged his stomach to the point that he is permanently nauseous. "I wake up feeling like I'm going to throw up all over the place," he says, lying in bed on a hot August morning while his mother fetches the strain of marijuana that best helps him wake up and settle his stomach -- "Morning Sugar," it's called.
In the complex world of medical marijuana, all weed is not created equal. Michael Oliveri, who made a difficult move away from home for the first time nearly a year ago in order to live in California, where medical marijuana was legalized in 1996, has brought home about 10 types of marijuana. Strains like "Sour Diesel" and "Grape Ape" -- known as "sativas" -- are uppers, or "daytime weed." They are psychoactive, helping with alertness, and give Michael a much-needed appetite.
Strains like "L.A. Confidential" and "Grand Daddy Purple" -- known as "indicas" -- work as a muscle relaxer and offer the best pain relief, Michael says. They help him relax enough to go to sleep at night.
"Everybody thinks, 'oh, it's weed -- you get high,' " Michael Oliveri says. "The good thing about Cali is my choice of functional medication ... I can actually find a way to not get stoned, but be comfy -- be healthy."
This is difficult new ground for the Oliveris. Christiane Oliveri, a suburban mom who set up a local youth center so teenagers wouldn't get involved with drugs and alcohol, admits she "freaked" when Michael started using marijuana. Michael's father, Anthony, cut him off financially when he moved to California for the marijuana, and has only recently started to come around. He still looks on disapprovingly as his wife helps prepare Michael's morning hit of marijuana in a Volcano Vaporizer next to his bed.
"I did the journey of doctors with him," Christiane Oliveri explains -- specialists, deep-tissue massage, excruciating physical therapy, expensive chiropractic treatments. There were 27 epidurals. The medications, including more than two years on a morphine patch, were devastating for Michael. He grew withdrawn and lifeless, his mother says. "There was no Michael in there," Christiane Oliveri says. "Just a body and someone who is surviving. No food whatsoever."
Eventually, Michael ended up hospitalized from fecal poisoning -- a side effect of morphine is severe constipation. The near-death experience was the final straw for Michael. Over a gut-wrenching eight-month period, he weaned himself off morphine, gave up on doctors, and turned to the one thing he found, quite by accident, greatly helped his pain and nausea -- marijuana.
The transformation was stark, Christiane Oliveri says. Michael developed an appetite and started going out with his friends again and playing his bass. "I realized, wait, we have Michael back," she says. "He's actually happy. He's joining the family."
Michael is so thankful for marijuana that he has the THC molecule -- the active ingredient in marijuana -- tattooed on his right forearm, with a heartbeat line morphing into a symbol for infinity. "It's keeping me alive more than anything else," he says. "If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it," Christiane Oliveri told members of the state Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee this summer. "Marijuana is a miracle."
In February, the state Senate passed the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, 22 to 16, with two abstentions. If enacted, the law would decriminalize marijuana use for people suffering from certain debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and epilepsy. A modified version cleared the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee in June and is expected to be up for a vote after the Assembly reconvenes this month.
The New Jersey medical marijuana bill has made strange bedfellows of one of the Assembly's most conservative Republicans -- Michael Patrick Carroll, of Morristown -- and one of its most liberal Democrats -- Reed Gusciora, of Princeton. The two are among the primary sponsors of the Assembly bill. Gov. Jon Corzine has indicated he would sign the bill.
"Legislators really understand suffering. Suffering is universal," says Meagan Johnson, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, which has advocated for medical marijuana laws. "We've found that there is bipartisan support for medical marijuana in the state of New Jersey."
Under the proposed law, doctors would be able to recommend marijuana to patients with whom they have an established relationship. Nonprofit groups would be allowed to set up "alternative treatment centers," which would be licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health and Senior Services. The centers would be permitted to grow marijuana and sell it to patients who have been approved by the Department of Health and issue a registry identification card.
The cards would have to be renewed annually. While marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, the New Jersey bill notes that 99 percent of marijuana arrests are made under state law, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the FBI. In March, Attorney General Eric Holder made clear that federal agents would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries that appear to be complying with state laws, a shift from Bush administration policy.
The New Jersey bill cites a report by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine commissioned after the passage of medical marijuana voter referenda in California and Arizona. The study, completed in 1999, found cannabinoid drugs -- particularly THC -- have "potential therapeutic value" for pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation, but warned smoking marijuana was a poor delivery system for THC because of its harmful effects.
Opponents of New Jersey's medical marijuana law point to reports of rampant abuse of the law in California, where patients with questionable conditions can easily access legal marijuana. But sponsors of the New Jersey bill say they crafted the bill to avoid the most dangerous misuses by giving strict, centralized oversight to the Department of Health and limiting the amount of usable marijuana a patient can have to one ounce per month. The Assembly heath committee further tightened the bill by eliminating a provisions that would have allowed patients to grow up to six marijuana plants. The Assembly version also requires patients to pick up the marijuana in person, instead of sending a caregiver.
"There are 13 other states that have these laws. The New Jersey bill is based on the best practices of all those states," Johnson says. "Our law would actually be the most restrictive law in the country."
"I'm not stupid enough to say we're going to craft a perfect bill," says Democratic state Senator Nicholas Scutari, a primary sponsor of the bill and a practicing attorney in Linden. But the state already regulates a number of dangerous substances, Scutari says, including alcohol -- once a federally banned substance -- and tobacco, as well as the distribution of powerful and highly addictive pharmaceutical drugs. "I'm just saying we shouldn't treat it that much differently," Scutari says of medical marijuana.
Nancy Fedder, 62, a former database manager who lives with her daughter and grandchildren in Hillsborough, doesn't want to go to jail.
At home, when the pain resulting from her multiple sclerosis doesn't keep her in bed, she's the fixer-upper, the pet-rabbit feeder, the babysitter. But every now and again, she willfully and purposely breaks the law. She drives into New York City to buy marijuana from an underground cooperative of patients.
"I could probably go to a local high school and get some, unfortunately," Fedder says, but she trusts the co-op. "There's no Ecstasy thrown in there for an extra kick."
One of the downsides of the going to the co-op, however, is the long drive home. "I'm very scared," Fedder says. "I'm crossing state lines. It's in my car. I'm afraid of getting pulled over -- for anything, a busted tail light."
Johnson says people all over New Jersey are living with the same fear. "They don't want to be associated with criminals and feel ashamed that they're accessing their medicine on the black market," she says.
In her white shorts and loose printed blouse, her walker parked nearby, Fedder looks like anyone's grandmother, not a shifty drug user. But there are still whispers among parents at the local bus stop, where her grandchildren are picked up for school. Her open support for a medical marijuana bill has raised a few eyebrows in Fedder's prim, leafy suburb and it upsets her. "It's not an easy decision to make," she says.
Opponents of medical marijuana say people like Fedder are the exception -- extreme cases tricked out by activists to garner sympathy.
The majority of people who will benefit from a medical marijuana law, opponents say, are recreational users.
"The people who want to legalize drugs have financed this whole effort," says David Evans, a Pittstown attorney and executive director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition. "They are basically using sick people to further their agenda."
Numerous testimonies from patients, sincere though they may be, are not enough, Evans says. "We don't make medical decisions in this country by anecdotal stories," Evans says. "Otherwise, we'd just be approving medicine based on the way we did it a hundred years ago." The FDA trial process is not perfect, he says, but it's critical in protecting people from the potentially serious consequences of taking medication. To sidestep that process is simply "reckless public policy," he says.
Ironically, it was Evans who was instrumental in formulating the American Bar Association's position supporting medical marijuana in the late 1980s. "It's a very good argument," Evans says, referring to the testimonies of sick and dying people. As a cancer survivor and EMT, Evans is no stranger to pain and suffering, but he says after doing research into the harmful effects of marijuana, he regrets his initial support.
Evans also takes issue with the widespread belief that marijuana is essentially harmless, pointing to studies like one from Harvard Medical School two years ago that found marijuana, in any form, opens the body to the virus that causes Kaposi's sarcoma, a type of cancer. People with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS patients, would be particularly vulnerable.
As his children play in the backyard, Charles Kwiatkowski reaches behind a spice rack in a kitchen cabinet and pulls out a plastic tub of prescription medicines he keeps hidden from his three daughters. The container is stuffed with prescription bottles, including OxyContin, Neurontin, muscle relaxers and antidepressants. There are small yellow Post-its reminding him which side effects are caused by each drug: "nausea," "hot flashes," "dizziness." Another note says "suicidal thoughts."
Kwiatkowski, 38, who lives near the Jersey Shore in the town of Hazlet, suffers from multiple sclerosis. Complications from the disease have led to nerve damage in his spine and blurred vision. His head will often jerk involuntary. Sometimes the pain is so unbearable that he gets up in the middle of the night, stands in the corner of the living room, leans his forehead against the wall and tries to sleep standing up.
Eight years ago, Kwiatkowski's condition worsened and he no longer could continue his job as a computer programmer at AT&T. His physician prescribed a slew of medicines but the side effects -- severe nausea, weakness, even temporary blindness -- put a strain on his marriage and scared his children.
"I would scream at my children quite often and I didn't know why I was doing that. I'm really a loving dad," says Kwiatkowski, who keeps pictures of his daughters -- Allie, 9, Casey, 7, and Madison, 4 -- in every room of the house.
Kwiatkowski says using marijuana allows him to drastically reduce the prescription swings and go swimming and kick a ball," Kwiatkowski says.
"Without marijuana, I'm stuck in bed having muscle spasms most of the day." The marijuana, which Kwiatkowski inhales using a Volcano Vaporizer kept in a locked box in the basement, also helps clear his multiple sclerosis-related vision impairment, including the persistent "floaters" in his field of vision. "They're black spots just flying everywhere -- which keeps me from seeing my beautiful girls," Kwiatkoswi says. "If there's a medication that fixes your vision enough to see your children, that would be a medicine from God."
Kwiatkowski says a bag of vapor in the morning and in the evening -- his wife, Mary, locks the basement door when he is medicating -- is all he has needed since he started using marijuana several years ago.
"My eyesight gets better, my pain gets less and my balance improves 100 percent," Kwiatkowski says. "I lose the neuralgia feeling, where it kind of feels like someone is pulling the skin off your face."
When Fedder's granddaughter was 11, she started the school's D.A.R.E. program, which teaches children to avoid drugs. Fedder decided to sit her down and discuss her medical marijuana use, which she does out of sight.
"When we first started talking about it, she says, 'Grandma, that's so bad for you. It's addictive and it's illegal,' " Fedder recalled. She made a distinction between abuse of marijuana and the careful use of dangerous drugs -- such as her pills -- to alleviate pain. "She lives with me, she knows what I live with. She was very understanding."
Anti-drug groups have warned legalizing medical marijuana sends the wrong message to children and will increase young people's interest in trying it. Evans points to marijuana food products sold at legal dispensaries in other states that are marketed to imitate popular candy bars, like "Buddafinga," "Pot-tarts" and "Munchy Way."
Steven Demofonte, a 25-year veteran of the Mount Laurel Police Department who retired last year and testified against the medical marijuana bill on behalf of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, expressed similar concerns. "Unfortunately, marijuana has been that gateway drug that so many young people that I've dealt with over the years begin with," he says.
But the bill's supporters openly scoff at this argument.
"How can it be more prevalent than it is today?" Carroll says. "If I want marijuana right now, I can get it in 10 minutes. If it's that easy to get, it's hard to see how anything we're going to do could make it worse."
Scutari pointed to the frequent abuse of prescription medications by teenagers, who raid their parents' medicine cabinets and hold "pill parties," where the medications are dumped into a party bowl and offered around. "These pills are widely available," Scutari says.
"The whole thing about what the children are going to think really comes to good parents versus bad parents," says Charles Kwiatkowski. "That's just a part of life."
There is widespread support for a medical marijuana law in New Jersey. In 2002, Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics conducted a poll that found 82 percent of residents support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes if recommended by a doctor; 61 percent says they "strongly support" the idea.
The New Jersey poll reflects national polls on the subject. A Time/CNN poll conducted the same year found the vast majority of respondents -- 80 percent -- think marijuana should be dispensed for medical purposes. A similar poll conducted by the AARP in 2004 found 73 percent of people over 45 agreed.
But Demofonte says his organization is uncomfortable with the bill because law enforcement has reported spikes in crime in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. "People are shot and victimized who work in these facilities," Demofonte says. "There's street corner dealing that goes on around these facilities. It creates an excessive burden on law enforcement wherever these dispensaries have shown up."
The original Senate bill, Demofonte says, was "outrageous" because it loosely defined "chronic pain." He added that the Assembly's version, which removed chronic pain, just gives the illusion that it's more strict. In reality, a catchphrase allows the Department of Health to add conditions at its discretion.
"Can it help some people? There's no doubt in my mind . . . If it was solely for those few individuals who need it, I don't think there's anyone in this state that would say it's not okay for them to do it. I wish someone would come up with a bill that would target simply those people."
But Carroll, the state Assemblyman, sees it another way. Not long ago, he had a relative with ovarian cancer who was hospitalized seven times with severe complications.
"If her doctor had told me at the time that smoking marijuana would have increased her appetite," Carroll says, "I would have personally gone to the Green, called a press conference, found a drug dealer and bought it right there in front of everybody, including the attorney general, and dared them to arrest me."
By Nyier Abdou
September 30, 2009