Is the Christie administration trying to pull the plug on N.J.'s medical marijuana law?
Of all the shitty ways to die, ALS is arguably the shittiest. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and in short it is slow death brought on by the steady and methodical withering of the nerves that control your muscles. First, you can’t button your shirt. Then, you can’t walk and eventually, you can’t breathe. The cruelest irony is that the disease does not affect higher brain function, and so even at the very end, you are a fully present mind trapped in a lifeless body, a ghost in a dead machine. Upon diagnosis, most victims live three to five years. A small percentage live for up to 10 years, but only with the assistance of a ventilator, and few would call that living. There is no cure.
The hardest part of enduring ALS—harder than the burning ass, the complete helplessness and the terrible return to infancy—is maintaining the will to live. That’s what marijuana did for Diane Riportella—it made her not want to die.
“It alleviates the pain and it helps me eat because I have no appetite,” says 54-year-old Riportella, lying in her bed on the second floor of the upscale home she shares with her husband in one of the tonier Zip codes of Egg Harbor, N.J. “But more importantly, it puts a smile on my face and makes me at peace with all this,” she says, gesturing toward the vast array of pill bottles on her night stand and the tank of oxygen with the thick, white accordioned snake that connects it to the respirator mask she has removed to answer a reporter’s questions. “It makes me feel like I could live another day with this disease.”
She asks her husband to sit her upright and frowns as she shows off her limp, withering limbs that hang off her body like wilted branches. It wasn’t always like this. Before she was diagnosed three years ago, Riportella used to be a fitness trainer at the gym where she met her husband, Paul, 13 years her junior. “Yeah, she’s kind of the original cougar,” he says with a smile. She ran marathons to raise money for leukemia and breast cancer research, raising nearly $200,000 over the years by her reckoning. She was always helping out others in need. She even cooked eggs for clean-up workers at Ground Zero after 9/11.
Advancing the cause of medical marijuana will likely be her last fight. And she has fought hard. Riportella has been outspoken about her use of medical marijuana and testified before the New Jersey Legislature, along with other terminally ill advocates for medical marijuana, imploring lawmakers to pass the Compassionate Use Act, which former Gov. John Corzine signed into law Jan. 18 as one of his last official acts as governor.
“That’s what turned the tide—the stories of patients,” says Roseanne Scotti, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance NJ, which advocates for a more rational and humane response to the drug issue, and which played a key role in recruiting terminally ill patients who were self-medicating with marijuana to testify before the Legislature. “You can get all the peer-reviewed scientific journals arguing about molecules and receptors, but that’s not nearly as persuasive as a person with MS standing in front of you telling how nothing worked until a doctor told them off-the-record to try marijuana and it brought them instant relief from their pain and suffering.”
The law was scheduled to go into effect on the first day of July and if Corzine was still governor, almost everyone who has been involved in the passage of the law agrees, that timeline would have been met. But last fall, voters replaced Corzine with Republican Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor. New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act has been on the slow train to enactment ever since.
Last month, the Christie administration asked for—and was granted by the Legislature—a 90-day extension for implementation. But Riportella, like many advocates for medical marijuana, worries that implementation of the law may be delayed indefinitely.
“Any delay will engender more delay,” says Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coaltion For Medical Marijuana New Jersey. “My greatest fear is that this is the first of many delays.”
All eyes are on Jersey, including lawmakers in Harrisburg, where the seeds of medical marijuana legislation have already been planted in committee. If and when New Jersey’s Compassionate Use law goes into effect, it will be the most restrictive in the land. The list of medical conditions that would qualify patients is exceedingly short and unrelentingly grim: Cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, seizure disorders such as epilepsy, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, severe muscle spasms, inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease), or any terminal illness if a doctor has determined the patient will die within a year. Qualified patients will be restricted to two ounces per month (by comparison, Washington state allows patients up to 24 ounces every 60 days). Unlike all 13 of the other states that have passed medical marijuana laws, Garden State residents will not be allowed to grow their own.
For the sick and cash-strapped, this is the law’s biggest bummer.
“To allow patients to grow their own medical marijuana is such an advance in medical care, it allows patients to grow their own medicine for pennies,” says Wolski, who has been advocating for medical marijuana in New Jersey for 19 years. A retired nurse, Wolski used to work in the state Department of Corrections. Wolski said he first became aware of the gravity of the medical marijuana issue when he was vacationing in Amsterdam. There, he says he met an American expatriate from Kentucky who had served a year in prison for growing his own medical marijuana. The ex-pat was going blind from glaucoma and his doctor had advised him to try pot, which helped stem the onset of blindness. The authorities showed him no sympathy, throwing him in jail and seizing his farm.
Shortly thereafter, Wolski took up the cause. The first victory came in 2002 when he persuaded the New Jersey State Nurses Association—which represents 35,000 registered nurses statewide—to sign on to a resolution in favor of medical marijuana. In 2004, medical marijuana was bundled into a needle-exchange bill, but the combination was too unpalatable for the bill ever to get out of committee.
“Apparently, dealing with two drug issues at once made their head explode,” he says.
Still, the winds of public opinion were already shifting. A 2002 poll conducted by Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics that year found that 82 percent of New Jersey residents supported passage of a medical marijuana law. Shortly thereafter, the Drug Policy Alliance joined the fight, and helped corral wider support from the medical community, including the New Jersey Palliative Care Association and the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians. “The support of the medical community gives you credibility,” says Scotti. The Drug Policy Alliance also managed to get TV host Montel Williams, who suffers from MS and is a vocal proponent of medical marijuana, to join the cause.
In 2005, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari reintroduced medical marijuana as a standalone bill. Though a Democrat, Scutari is hardly soft on drugs; after all he is a former prosecutor. But he says he saw the light when he learned of a friend with a terminal disease who moved out to California to take advantage of their medical marijuana law. In fact, the early version of Scutari’s bill was like California’s medical marijuana law. It would have allowed qualified patients to grow up to six plants for personal use—but in the intervening five years it became far more restrictive in the pursuit of bi-partisan support. Legislators were determined to avoid things turning out like the dreaded “wild, wild west,” a reference to both California, where until recently pot dispensaries outnumbered Starbucks, and Colorado, where 1,000 people a day are applying for medical marijuana. And pot dispensaries still outnumber Starbucks.
Still, some proponents wonder if all the compromises went too far. “In our opinion, it was a much better bill [in 2005],” says Wolski.
“It is what it is,” Scutari says. “I still think it’s a good piece of legislation that will allow sick people access to medical marijuana. As for amending it [to loosen restrictions], we’ll see.”
Other proponents of the law see it as a good first step, a beachhead in hostile territory. “When people see that the sky has not fallen, we can revisit it and open it up more,” says Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, one of the law’s co-sponsors.
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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