TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — After hearing emotional testimony from dozens of chronically ill patients claiming that marijuana is the only drug to alleviate their pain and nausea, state lawmakers took the first step Monday toward forcing Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to rewrite proposed rules controlling access to medical marijuana.
Proponents of the medical marijuana law — which was signed by former Gov. Jon Corzine nearly a year ago but has not gone into effect — say Christie has gone beyond the intent of the law in drafting regulations for growing and dispensing the drug to patients with cancer, HIV/AIDS and other specified ailments.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has said he would not have signed the law in its current form. Proponents say the Health Department’s proposed rules are so strict patients would have difficulty accessing the drug.
Committees in the Senate and Assembly each passed resolutions Monday that would give the administration 30 days to rewrite the rules. If the resolution passes both chambers and the administration refuses to change the rules, the Legislature could pass a resolution scrapping the rules altogether.
“The goal seems to provide the least amount of relief to the fewest number of people in New Jersey,” said Roseanne Scotti of the state’s Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group for responsible drug policies.
Sen. Nick Scutari, who sponsored the medical marijuana bill in the Senate, said the proposed rules are contrary to lawmakers’ intent.
“Our intent was to create a program that gives patients suffering with debilitating illnesses a small measure of relief from their pain through the medicinal use of marijuana,” Scutari said. “The proposed regulations would make that virtually impossible.”
Diane Riportella agreed. The Little Egg Harbor Township resident cried as she told lawmakers she is dying of ALS, a nerve disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She said marijuana is the only drug that alleviates pain and nausea caused by the disease and other drugs .
“It’s the only thing that works,” she said. “Marijuana from the minute I smoke it makes me feel calm. It takes 2 seconds.”
After hearing Riportella testify before a Senate panel, Sen. Loretta Weinberg asked a Statehouse guard to escort the woman and her husband to the governor’s office. They waited in Christie’s outer office for a while, but were told the governor was in a meeting. So, they trudged back to the Statehouse Annex to testify before an Assembly panel also considering the rules.
Scutari said he hopes the administration will compromise on some of the more onerous regulations, such as restricting the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychotropic chemical in marijuana, to less than 10 percent, and barring dispensaries from being located near schools.
“My hope is that as this legislative veto moves forward, we can come to agreement,” Scutari said, “and we won’t need to move forward with this.”
Advocates began demanding a do-over almost as soon as the Health Department published the proposed rules last month. Among the many complaints are that restricting the THC content will make the marijuana too weak to be of much good.
Scutari and others also take issue with the rules’ specification that only two growers and four dispensaries be licensed, and that the drug not be available in baked goods. Not allowing a dispensary near a school would eliminate any from being set up in cities.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who sponsored the law in the Assembly, said patients have the right to access the form of the drug that is most helpful to them and that they shouldn’t have to wait longer for relief.
“The purpose of this legislation is to make this drug accessible in order to treat patients where traditional medicines have not worked,” he said. “It is unconscionable to make these patients wait any longer.”
New Jersey became the 14th state to allow medical marijuana shortly before Christie, a Republican, assumed office. He has insisted rules governing the law he inherited be strict. He has said pot wouldn’t be available here as widely as it is in California, a place where cannabis laws have a reputation for being lax.
Christie defended the proposed rules in a recent radio interview.
“I am not going to allow New Jersey to be turned into California or Colorado, where it is essentially defacto legalization of marijuana…I want to make sure we have a medicinal, not recreational program,” he said.
Christie also defended limits on the amount of THC, saying the 10 percent “is consistent with studies by the National Institutes of Health as to what can be effective in the relief of pain.”
Scotti said no other state regulates the amount of THC in its medicinal marijuana crop.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)