Is the Christie administration trying to pull the plug on N.J.'s medical marijuana law?
“We got the best bill we could get passed, we believe it is a huge step forward that will provide a lot of sick people relief,” Scotti says. “Unfortunately it excludes a lot of people—people with chronic pain, people with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
As it stands now, the Christie administration has until October to come up with the rules and regulations that will govern the manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana in New Jersey. Following that comes a 90-day period of public comment, which would take us into January 2011.
Once the regulations are amended and approved, the state would begin registering patients and selecting operators for the six Alternative Treatment Centers called for in the law (exact locations are yet to be determined, but the law calls for two in North Jersey, two in Central Jersey and two in South Jersey, with more to be added if demand is proven to exceed supply).
It would take the ATCs a few months to get up and running, and then to begin growing marijuana plants, which can take up to 120 days to mature. By that timeline, assuming there are no further delays, the earliest grievously ill patients like Diane Riportella could get access to medical marijuana without fear of arrest would be about a year from now; a lifetime for someone given just five years to live.
“I was actually just in the hospital the other night with a lung cancer patient whose malignancy has spread to his brain and he wants to start using medical marijuana,” says Anne Davis, executive director of NORML NJ, a volunteer organization that supports medical marijuana laws. “He doesn’t have any more time. He is sick right now and he probably won’t be around a year from now.”
And it would appear that further delays are on the horizon. Last month, the Christie administration floated a trial balloon that would radically rewrite the letter of the law, which calls for medical marijuana to be manufactured and dispensed by private operators. Christie has publicly stated that he would like Rutgers University to be the sole grower of medical marijuana—and become a hub of marijuana research—with teaching hospitals to serve as dispensaries. Most proponents of the law are opposed to these changes, labeling them a bad idea at best and at worst a thinly veiled attempt to delay implementation of the law indefinitely.
“We don’t support the idea of Rutgers being the only supplier and teaching hospitals being the only dispensaries for a number of reasons: First, monopolies never create ideal goods or services; more options always makes for a stronger marketplace,” says Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance. “Second, you have to remember that medical marijuana is still in conflict with federal law and for that reason no state has ever gotten into the business of growing and dispensing it themselves. It’s always been turned over to private operators who shoulder the risk of federal prosecution. We would be asking state and hospital employees to violate federal law. New Mexico [whose medical marijuana law closely mirrors New Jersey’s] considered the same thing but ultimately decided against it.”
That is true, says Dr. Alfredo Vigil, Secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Health, which is responsible for administering the state’s medical marijuana law. Vigil says New Mexico briefly considered using hospitals as pot dispensaries but quickly decided against it. “You have to remember that our law came into effect under the Bush administration and they were crystal clear that they were hostile to this law and would take any opportunity to prosecute people in violation of the federal law against marijuana,” he says. “We are talking about asking health care professionals to put their licenses in jeopardy. Plus, it seems like a fairly inefficient model. Hospitals aren’t used to being drug dispensaries and that’s a complicated business. On top of that you are talking about doubling or tripling the flow of patient traffic, adding more parking, more staff and more facilities, all of which is expensive and time-consuming.”
As for the prospect of the state of New Mexico growing its own pot: “That approach quickly proved impractical and unrealistic,” Vigil says. “First, the state doesn’t own any fields—people were joking about tilling the patch of grass outside the Department of Health. Ridiculous. Second, we license and certify the sale of alcohol, but we don’t make it for the simple reason that we have neither the facilities nor the expertise.”
As for Rutgers becoming a hub of marijuana research, Vigil says it would be nice, in a better world. “As a scientist, I am hobbled by a severe lack of knowledge about how that drug works and so it is very hard to have a scientific conversation about its medicinal use,” he says. “But the federal government has very strongly delayed and denied serious research into it for decades. And [the Rugters plan] would be asking a university that receives federal money and contracts to risk losing all that along with accreditation. States like New Mexico and New Jersey that have passed medical marijuana laws are essentially creating a shell around an illegal activity and there is a temporary truce with the feds. But that doesn’t mean those conflicts have been resolved.”
The University of Massachusetts tried for nine years to establish itself as a hub of marijuana research, which requires a special license from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Here’s how that went according to the project's official website:
Dr. Lyle Craker originally submitted the application for a license to DEA in June 2001. In December 2001, DEA claimed it was lost. We subsequently resubmitted a photocopy but were told in February 2002 that the photocopied application was invalid since it didn’t have an original signature. In July 2002, the original application was returned, unprocessed, with a DEA date stamp showing it had been received in June 2001. Craker resubmitted the original application to the DEA on Aug. 20, 2002, which the DEA finally acknowledged receiving.
And on it went. Fast forward through five years of red tape, culminating in legal action against the DEA that snaked through the Federal Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court and ended with DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner’s Feb. 12, 2007, recommendation that the research license be granted. The DEA thought about it for two whole years before finally deciding to overrule the judge and deny the license once and for all, making it clear in a strongly worded ruling that, after nine years of back and forth, this would be the final word on the matter.
Given UMass’ experience with the DEA, some proponents of the Compassionate Use law believe the Christie administration is intentionally leading medical marijuana down a blind alley with the Rutgers plan, knowing full well that it would languish for years in legal limbo before inevitably hitting a wall. They find it odd that a man who has built his political profile on the inelegant mantra of getting ‘government the hell out of your way’ is essentially asking the federal government for permission to make medical marijuana a reality in New Jersey, knowing that the answer is no.
“This is just another delay tactic to prolong the period of time before medical marijuana is available for as long as possible,” says Wolski of the Coalition For Medical Marijuana New Jersey. “Rutgers can always apply to become one of the growers, but don’t let it hold up the whole program.”
There are other reasons for proponents not to trust the Christie administration’s intentions. For the entirety of the four years it took to get the Compassionate Use law passed, proponents like CMMNJ, Drug Policy Alliance and NORML had a seat at the table. Lawmakers welcomed their advice and input. But when the Christie administration came in, the door was closed.
“Back in February we offered a set of regulations for implementing the law that we had assembled with various lawyers and experts,” says Wolski. “They wrote back to say ‘Thanks but no thanks, we’re not taking any input from advocates.’” Six months later the original deadline has come and gone, and still there are no regulations for implementing the law.
“They haven’t reached out to any medical marijuana experts. That’s like trying to build a bridge without talking to a bridge engineer,” says Chris Goldstein, who sits on the board of directors at both NORML and CMMNJ. “So I am not surprised they are totally confused. Why not just stick with the law we passed? It’s the most innovative law in the country. Why are we starting over?”
“When you are talking about the growing and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance you want it done correctly,” says Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Christie. “I mean, we could either do it now or do it right. The law as written is not a bad law, but we cannot allow this to become another Colorado or California. This governor, coming from a law-enforcement background, doesn’t want to see that happening. So we are taking a breather.”
Meanwhile, people are dying. Though the Christie administration has been granted a 90-day extension, time is running out for people like Diane Riportella and she can’t go to the Legislature for more. She’s already outlived her health-insurance policy. Two months ago, a respiratory infection nearly took her out. In that time, she’s had no access to medical marijuana. At first she was too sick to smoke, and by the time she pulled through and bounced back her source had dried up. Instead, she has had to rely on morphine, which is delivered to her house via Fed Ex unmolested by law enforcement. She doesn’t like morphine, it makes her dopey and sleep all the time. And she’s already grown addicted. Her face is flushed red and she has chills, which she says means she is going through withdrawal. She glumly asks her husband to give her another dose, and he shoots it into her mouth with a syringe. Then he puts the oxygen mask back on her as she waves a glassy-eyed goodbye. Soon the bedroom sounds like the inside of Darth Vader’s head as he covers her in a warm blanket and she drifts off to sleep.
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.
If you really think legalizing marijuana is the answer, you’ve forgotten how good the game has been to you over the years.
Weed smokers are being cited, arrested, locked up. And for what? Something that grows naturally in the earth? Marijuana prohibition needs to end. Now.
Geek Invasion 2013