New Jersey has hit a speed bump on the road to medical marijuana. The Christie Administration has been asking for more time to implement the law and PW has learned that the bill's chief sponsor, State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, is going to give it to them.
As you may recall, back in January, New Jersey became the 14th in the Union to pass medical marijuana legislation. A last-minute amendment to the legislation—part of a trade-off that made the law more restrictive in terms of who qualifies to receive medical marijuana and how much they were entitled to each month—moved up the timeline for implementation from one year to six months after it was signed into law.
The law calls for the state Health Department to come up with a system of regulations by July 1 that would govern the production and distribution of medical marijuana. After a 60-day comment period, the state would then have until November to get the first six nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries open for business. However, the Christie Administration has asked for an extension of nine to 12 months, hoping to push back the deadline as far as July 2011, to give Health Department Commissioner Dr. Poonam Alaigh more time to figure out how and where plants will be grown and sold, and by whom. An extension would require the cooperation of the law's chief sponsor—in this case, Sen. Scutari—who would then introduce an amendment to that would have to pass both houses of the Legislature before summer recess, which is just two weeks away.
So far, Scutari has remained mum about whether or not he will agree to the extension. But yesterday, during an interview with PW, the senator confirmed that he was willing to give the Christie Administration more time. "I've given it some consideration and I am probably going to give them some additional time, but not [the six to nine months] they are asking for," Scutari tells PW. "I just think it makes sense."
When asked if he thought the Christie Administration was asking for an extension in good faith or merely stonewalling the implementation of a law they don't like, Scutari said: "I was not entirely convinced that the administration [was acting in good faith], however, I have just met with the Health Department and I am convinced that they have been doing their homework and I will work with the administration if they can show some progress in getting a patient registry up and running." When asked about the new timeline, Scutari indicated he was leaning towards a 90- to 120-day extension. If the deadline gets pushed back, the soonest that medical marijuana patients could expect to begin receiving their medication would be March 2011, according to Skip Stabile, a legislative aide in Scutari's office.
Medical marijuana proponents are threatening legal action if there is any delay. "We have a legal team working on this as we speak," says Anne Davis, executive director of NORML NJ. "We are talking about patients that don't have an extra six months or a year. Some may not be alive that long. I was just meeting with a lung cancer patient last night that wants to participate in the [medical marijuana] program. He is sick right now, he needs medical marijuana right now."
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.