The State Police and the New Jersey Army National Guard took to the South Jersey skies in a Black Hawk helicopter last week to train officers how to locate and bust marijuana growers.
A day later, lawmakers in Trenton approved a bill they hope, if enacted, would allow seriously ill residents to legally use marijuana for medical purposes.
The two events highlight a thorny question for New Jersey: How do you make it legal for some residents to smoke pot, while it's against the law for everyone else? Lawmakers are looking at 13 states that allow medical marijuana to make sure the legislation they pass has enough restrictions so only those who really need it can get it.
One mantra they seem to have adopted: Don't be like California.
California has been widely criticized for adopting legislation that is too lax. There, retail outlets have been selling to an estimated 200,000 registered users and have been the repeated target of federal drug enforcement raids.
New Jersey lawmakers "were very concerned about opening the floodgates, being irresponsible and allowing people who should not use this abuse this," Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors of the bill, (A804), said during Thursday's Assembly Health Committee hearing. They "certainly did not want to send out the message we are encouraging illegal drug use," he said.
These concerns drove dramatic revisions:
Only people suffering from specific diseases -- AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and seizure disorders -- would be allowed to use the illegal drug. The original bill defined eligible users by their symptoms.
Only the registered patient may retrieve the drug from the grower, or, if the patient is unable to do so, a courier service could be arranged to deliver the pot to the patient's home. The original bill allowed a designated caregiver to retrieve the illegal drug on the patient's behalf.
No one would be allowed to grow their own pot. The original bill would have permitted patients to grow as many as six plants -- and possess up to one additional ounce of usable marijuana. Under the new version, patients could only get the drug -- no more than one ounce a month -- through a licensed nonprofit growing facility.
"New Jersey appears to have learned some lessons from California," said Dan Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance in California.
When the California law passed 13 years ago, "it gave very little guidance to anyone -- law enforcement, counties -- how to make this law work best for public safety and health," Abrahamson said. "There was some chaos that ensued."
Overnight, dispensaries operating whenever and however they wanted opened in communities that didn't want them, he said. Critics contend only a small percentage of medicinal users there have serious illnesses.
With cities and counties allowed to enact different laws, pot is sold legally from hundreds of shops in Los Angeles, and dispensaries have doctors on-site to assess patients' ills. Oakland allows people with a medical card to acquire as many as 72 plants, "for any illness for which marijuana provides relief," according to recent published reports.
RESTRICTIONS AND CONCERNS
New Jersey, on the other hand, would have the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country, lawmakers say.
Activists worry about that.
Jim Miller, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, said restricting which conditions can be treated with marijuana and limiting how much patients can get is like saying "We want to limit how many people we can help, and we want to limit how much we can help them."
Miller, however, added: "It's better to ensure that a bill will be passed and then work to make it better."
The changes could make the issue less politically radioactive.
On Friday, Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts (D-Camden), who decides which bills get posted for a vote, offered qualified support.
"The speaker has said he is open to supporting a bill that contains safeguards to ensure marijuana would be available only to those with truly legitimate medical needs and only under strict doctor supervision," said Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Assembly Democrats. "The amended bill moves closer to meeting those requirements. But other major issues, such as requiring doctor and patient education and finalizing law enforcement matters around distribution and possession, still need to be addressed."
Roberts would not post the bill for a full Assembly vote until his concerns are met, Roseman said.
Attorney General Anne Milgram also said the bill is better. "It tightens up the provisions ... that could have become loopholes by people seeking to divert marijuana for illicit purposes," said spokesman Peter Aseltine.
New Jersey is among more than a dozen states wrestling with medical marijuana legislation, said Karmen Hanson, a policy analyst for the National Council of State Legislatures. In recent weeks, bills passed the state senates in Delaware and Illinois.
Hanson said the issue is in constant flux, with some states "starting from scratch, some tinkering" and others scaling back laws. Abrahamson, of the Drug Policy Alliance in California, said this ongoing review is helpful: "It needs to be flexible and change to fit the communities' needs."
But as the training by helicopter at Fort Dix last week indicates, law enforcement is not taking a softer stance on marijuana.
Using GPS and compasses for navigation, the spotters in the sky relayed coordinates to the teams on the ground, who trekked through the woods to find the marijuana plot.
The annual haul in homegrown marijuana varies, but in good years more than 3,000 plants can be discovered and destroyed, including marijuana cultivated indoors, said Detective Sgt. William Peacock, commander of the State Police Marijuana Eradication Squad.
"That's nothing compared to California," he said, "but for our built-up state, that's a bunch of marijuana."
by Chris Megarian and Susan K. Livio
Sunday June 07, 2009, 8:01 AM