Despite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s surprise announcement last week that he was finally implementing the state’s medical marijuana law—after stalling it for 18 months—many advocates remain less than impressed with the new program. Their beef is with a heap of onerous regulations they say undermines both the spirit and practicality of the law. And because New Jersey’s nascent medical marijuana program could very well be the model for Pennsylvania’s—if we ever pass such a law—it’s a situation worth watching.
New Jersey’s Department of Health and Senior Services drafted the specific regulations to govern the program, and made them the most restrictive of any of the 16 states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.
For starters, New Jersey is the only state in that group that bans home cultivation. Patients must get their weed from one of just six alternative treatment centers in the entire state (Camden County is believed to be one of the proposed locations), which means patients will pay more than if they could grow it themselves. There are also strict limits on the type and potency of weed being sold. While countless strains exist, each engineered for a specific benefit—pain management or nausea mitigation, for example—the state is permitting the sale of only three strains. Meanwhile, the cap on THC content is 10 percent, which is roughly equivalent to the potency of street marijuana and far less than medical-grade marijuana available in other states, which often exceeds 20 percent. You could certainly smoke twice as much or more, but the law allows the purchase of only two ounces per month. “Limiting the THC level allows for standardization and the ability to do research studies and to evaluate patient response,” explains DHSS spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
But Chris Goldstein, pot activist and spokesman for the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey and PhillyNORML, calls the THC limits a “political decision and not one based on science.” Goldstein believes it’s part of Christie’s effort to appear tougher and more serious than states like California, where the impression is that people there can easily obtain thermonuclear-grade medical marijuana just for stubbing their big toe. “You can’t kill yourself with marijuana, so limiting THC potency is pointless. Especially when we’re talking about people with serious diseases who need powerful medicine.”
And then there’s the convoluted registration process. To be able to prescribe marijuana, doctors must first sign up for a state registry, through which they would then certify that their patients have medical conditions—cancer, AIDS-related illnesses, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, etc.—that would make them eligible to register for medical marijuana. The process is complicated by the fact that any doctor signing up for the physician registry must have completed addiction medicine and pain management courses within the past two years. “It’s not really feasible that an eye doctor treating glaucoma, or even someone treating Crohn’s disease, would have a current CME [continuing medical education] in addictive medicine,” Goldstein says.
Some physicians are also wary of registering and exposing themselves to increased scrutiny from the federal government, which recently reaffirmed its stance that marijuana has no medicinal purposes. CMMNJ Executive Director Ken Wolski says doctors haven’t forgotten that in the wake of California’s mid-’90s legalization of medical marijuana, the Clinton administration threatened them with criminal charges for merely recommending marijuana to their patients. “I hear from patients every week who say their doctor doesn’t want anything to do with this program,” says Wolski.
Leusner, the DHSS spokeswoman, says the process is in place “to ensure that patients receive ongoing care from a physician who is managing their debilitating illness—not just giving them access to medical marijuana. Its narrow, medically driven focus is designed to avoid the abuses that we’ve seen particularly in California and in Colorado.”
“This is big government at its worst, and it’s pretty ironic that we’re fighting a conservative governor over deregulation,” Cherry Hill native Jay Lassiter says wryly. The 39-year-old HIV-positive medical marijuana activist, who smokes pot daily to combat the side effects of his drug cocktail, is one of many eligible medical marijuana patients who have been testifying before the DHSS in Trenton over the past year in an effort to get the department to loosen or eliminate some of the rules. The DHSS is required to listen to public comment in formulating its regulations, but is not obligated to heed it. Of all the restrictions, Lassiter especially objects to the THC and strain limits. “I have stomach problems and a lack of appetite all day and diarrhea at night, and it might be useful to have access to a potent strain that was very specifically geared to the one symptom that I’m coping with at the time,” he says.
Goldstein insists that maintaining such burdensome regulations will only drive patients to continue purchasing better, cheaper weed on the streets or from illicit growers and risk arrest—precisely what the law was created to minimize. “There is competition out there from the underground market, and most patients tell me that unless things change they have no interest in what [the state is] gonna be selling.”
Here in Pennsylvania, state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Delaware/Montgomery counties) would love to be talking about refining an existing medical marijuana law, but he’s far from that point. His recently introduced Senate bill to legalize medical marijuana has been languishing in the General Assembly since April, and it’s doubtful it will get a vote this year.
Leach says he’s up against conservative ideologues who still hold onto old stereotypes and reefer-madness fears. “When you talk to these people it’s really frustrating because it’s not like they argue science. They’re like, ‘We don’t wanna make it easier for a bunch of people to go get high and listen to weird music.’ Which, you know, a 72-year-old cancer patient, that’s what he wants to do, he wants to light up a spliff and listen to some Bob Marley. Right, that’s what this is all about.”
While Leach’s bill calls for a patient registry, possession limits of one ounce, closely monitored dispensaries and strict parameters for what medical conditions are eligible for marijuana treatment, it also provides for home cultivation—up to six plants—and there’s no mention of dispensary THC or strain limits, or a physician registry. “I think it’s a moderate, reasonable approach, which gives people access to the medicine they need without unduly risking that it falls into the hands of people who are not legitimate users,” he says.
But similar to the New Jersey law, Leach’s bill would authorize the Pennsylvania Department of Health to create the regulations that would govern the state medical marijuana program, and Gov. Corbett could attempt the same restrictive maneuvers as Christie has. Of course, Corbett would first have to sign off on the law, and given his current anti-medical marijuana stance, that seems unlikely. Then again, given his very public admiration for Christie and his policies (as well as poll numbers indicating that most voting Pennsylvanians are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana), perhaps it’s possible.
“I think our strongest case is that the need for [medical marijuana] transcends party, it transcends socioeconomic status or race or religion,” Leach says. “Anyone can be in the position where they desperately need this medicine, or someone they care about does. I think it’s inevitable that a [medical marijuana] law will pass. And if there’s an issue with the rules and the regulations after that happens, then we’ll deal with it.”
In New Jersey, there’s a glimmer of hope for advocates fighting to change the state’s regulations. “Rules are always subject to review and possible amendment,” says Leusner.
Lassiter says he’s happy there’s any law at all. “It’s gonna be baby steps to get this to where we want it to be,” he says. “And if Corbett’s watching all of this and he wants to make Christie his role model, maybe there’s a small door open for Pennsylvania to do the right thing, too.”
Rues Road—which winds through an idyllic and remote area of Upper Freehold Township, New Jersey, past lush farm fields and the occasional McMansion set back on a sprawling parcel of land—doesn't look much like a battlefield. But it's become ground zero in the fight over the state's Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, in limbo for nearly two years since former Gov. Jon Corzine signed the bill on his last day of office in January 2010.
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