New Jersey is poised to become the next state to allow residents to use marijuana, when recommended by a doctor, for relief from serious diseases and medical conditions.
The state Senate has approved the bill and the state Assembly is expected to follow. The legislation would then head to the governor's office for his signature.
Gov. Jon Corzine, the Democrat who lost his re-election bid this month, has indicated he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk before he leaves office in January. It would likely be one of Mr. Corzine's last acts before relinquishing the job to Republican Chris Christie.
Mr. Christie has indicated he would be supportive of such legislation, but had concerns that one draft of a bill he read didn't have enough restrictions, a spokeswoman said.
The bill has been endorsed by the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians and the New Jersey State Nurses Association.
Some lawmakers oppose the legislation, saying they fear the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries, as in California, where medical marijuana is legal. "It sends a mixed message to our children if you can walk down the street and see pot shops," said Republican Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini.
Federal law bars the use of marijuana. But legislatures in several states, including California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont, permit use of the drug for medical purposes. Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier this year that federal prosecutors wouldn't prosecute people complying with state medical marijuana laws.
The New Jersey bill would allow people with debilitating medical conditions to grow, possess and use marijuana for personal use, provided that a physician allows it after completing a full assessment of the patient's history and condition. The conditions that are stipulated in the Senate bill include cancer, glaucoma and human immunodeficiency viruses.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat who has led the fight for the medical-marijuana bill, said that was not a final list. He said the Senate bill would have to be reconciled with whatever the Assembly might pass.
Support for the legislation stems partly from sympathy for the plight of John Ray Wilson, a New Jersey resident who suffers from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. Mr. Wilson is scheduled to go on trial in December on felony drug charges, including operating a drug-production facility and manufacturing drugs. State police said they found 17 mature marijuana plants growing alongside his home in 2008. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Superior Court judge who will oversee the case has barred Mr. Wilson from explaining to the jury that he uses marijuana for his multiple sclerosis instead of more conventional medicines, which he said he can't afford, since he has no medical insurance.
If convicted, Mr. Wilson faces up to 20 years in prison. "It definitely helps for pain," Mr. Wilson said. "Stress can bring MS on. And I'm definitely under some stress."
David Wald, a spokesman for the state attorney general, which is arguing the state's position, said: "We're prosecuting the law."
At least two lawmakers, including Mr. Scutari, have asked Mr. Corzine to pardon Mr. Wilson. "I think it's unfair," said Mr. Scutari. "To try to incarcerate him for years and years doesn't serve a good government function."
The governor's office said it wouldn't comment on pardons involving an ongoing case.
Mr. Wilson's case hasn't persuaded Ms. Angelini, who voted against it in the health committee. As the executive director of Prevention First, an antidrug and antiviolence nonprofit, she said she was concerned that the bill would open the door for more liberal drug policies.
"If the drug laws are lax," she said, "that can open it up to eventual drug legalization."
By SUZANNE SATALINE
December 1, 2009
Wall Street Journal