Three years after it was introduced in the Legislature, the proposal to legalize marijuana for medical use in New Jersey gets its first test in a Senate committee tomorrow in what is expected to be a contentious process that will spill into an election year.
New Jersey would become the 14th state to create a sanctioned medical marijuana program, although the upcoming vote in the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee is just the first step. The prime Senate sponsor of the bill (A804/S119) said he feels confident.
"This is groundbreaking stuff, and I'm excited about the prospect of taking the next step," Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said.
The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act would require the state Department of Health and Senior Services to evaluate requests from physicians who recommend marijuana to their patients to help alleviate a "debilitating medical condition," defined as cancer, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS, or chronic illnesses that cause "wasting syndrome, severe or chronic pain, seizures and severe and persistent muscle spasms."
Patients the health department deems worthy would receive a state identification card verifying their enrollment. Patients, and their primary caretakers who do not have a history of drug convictions, "shall not be subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty" provided they possess the card and no more than six marijuana plants and 1 ounce of "usable marijuana."
Opponents refuse to concede medical marijuana has wide support anywhere -- in the Legislature or among the public. They intend to argue lawmakers ought to be concerned from a consumer standpoint.
"Legislators, out of the goodness of their hearts, listen to these people," said David Evans, an attorney and executive director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition, a national group. "But many people don't look beyond the compassion argument."
The bill up for a vote tomorrow has been changed to reflect concerns about how patients would legally obtain the drug, which would remain an illegal substance in all other circumstances.
The bill allows the state health department to license "medical marijuana alternative treatment centers," a new entity that would cultivate and deliver the drug to participating patients, according to the amendment.
Otherwise, patients might choose to grow their own or "go to the black market," said Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, one of the major proponents of the bill. These licensed growing centers have worked in Oregon, she said.
Scotti, whose organization also was a major supporter of needle exchange legislation that passed after 13 years of lobbying, said she expects this bill to be a much easier sell.
"Legislators understand anyone can be in this position and have one of these diseases," Scotti said. At public hearings held in June 2006 and May 2008 "regular people testified. ... They said 'I do this because this is the only way they will have a quality of life.'"
Gerry and Don McGrath of Robbinsville will testify, as they have before, about how their son, Sean, regained his appetite and reduced his suffering before he died from cancer four years ago.
"I strongly believe that once members of the Senate Health Committee listen objectively to stories like ours on Monday, they will vote yes on the bill, bringing it closer to becoming law and help those currently suffering in New Jersey," Don McGrath said.
Evans said some people may attest to marijuana's nausea- and pain-curbing abilities, but this is no substitute for Food and Drug Administration approval. "They may feel better, but you have to make sure it is safe. There are no proper studies about dose, how many times do you take it," Evans said. "Once this bill is approved, you can smoke your head off all day long."
The FDA has approved Marinol, a pill made from a synthetic version of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana found to relieve nausea and vomiting. "This is approved for medical treatment, so what's the problem?" John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families. "I doubt whether this bill will ever see daylight."
The movement to expand medical marijuana laws has been slow but steady, activists say.
Michigan voters recently approved a ballot initiative in November permitting a medical marijuana program, becoming the 13th state to legalize the practice.
Medical marijuana programs are also legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
BY SUSAN K. LIVIO