Medical Marijuana Debate…Is Relief On the Way?

The medical marijuana debate in New Jersey has become grounds for partisan bickering, bureaucratic wrangling and political posturing.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

One can only imagine what it is like to be sick and in pain on a daily basis, suffering from a chronic ailment such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS or glaucoma. We’ve all known someone who is dealing with such a dire circumstance. It’s not just the physical pain, but the emotional and psychological torment. Often, we feel there is nothing we can do other than show compassion and lend an ear. But for many who are this sick, a meaningful way to reduce suffering is the use of marijuana in a controlled, clinical and medically coordinated fashion.

This is not a new revelation. The medical use of marijuana has been debated for decades. At the beginning of 2010, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize the medical use of cannabis to treat specific medical conditions. But passing a law and getting suffering patients the help they need appear to be two very different things in our state. The law was supposed to be implemented and medical cannabis made available by July 2010, but that didn’t happen. Governor Chris Christie, through the Department of Health, has raised concerns regarding who should grow the marijuana—and in what potency. Further, Christie and certain legislators want to make sure no one can take advantage of the new law for recreational use or profit.

The bottom line is that, as I write this, medical marijuana still is not available to patients, regardless of their pain and suffering. Once again, a serious situation involving people who need help is caught up in partisan bickering, bureaucratic wrangling and political posturing. There are also legitimate disagreements on how best to implement the program.

In December, the Democratic Legislature was trying to outmaneuver the administration by passing legislation to throw out Christie’s proposed rules on administering the medical marijuana program.
Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the two lead sponsors of the original medical marijuana bill, have accused the Department of Health of creating unnecessary obstacles to implementing the law. In reply, the administration has said it is just trying to create safeguards and standards.

According to Gusciora, the administration’s “restrictions are clearly outside the legislative intent.” He says the focus of implementation should “go back to being about patient care.” Sounds simple enough, but Dr. Poonam Alaigh, Commissioner of the Department of Health and Senior Services, told that Christie’s proposed rules are necessary to guarantee that “the law does not fuel underground illegal activity.”

Once again, Christie is playing hard ball. At a town hall meeting in late November, the governor made it clear that if the Legislature continued to fight his restrictions, things would only get worse for sick patients in need of medical marijuana. “If they get rid of the regulations I have, then I have to go back and rewrite those regulations,” Christie said, adding, “I want this to be finished. I want to implement it and be done with it.”

I take the governor at his word and believe that he does in fact want those in pain to get the medical marijuana that could ease their suffering. Further, I’m convinced that the Democrats in the Legislature who are leading this fight are also coming from a place of caring and compassion. The problem is, neither side trusts the other.

At press time, the New York Times reported on a compromise between the governor and advocates for medical marijuana. The apparent settlement would make marijuana available for certain medical uses by next summer, according to the Times.

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