Backers of Medical Marijuana Hopeful in N.J.

Backers of Medical Marijuana Hopeful in N.J.
Posted by CN Staff on March 09, 2009 at 07:17:54 PT
By Adrienne Lu, Inquirer Trenton Bureau
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
New Jersey -- For years, an unusual coalition of advocates and lawmakers has worked to legalize medical marijuana in New Jersey.Last month, the group won its biggest victory to date when the Senate approved a medical-marijuana bill in a bipartisan vote of 22-16. It was the first time such legislation had made it past the committee stage to a floor vote in Trenton.
Supporters of medical marijuana are hopeful the Assembly will follow suit. Gov. Corzine has already said he would "absolutely" sign the bill into law if it reached his desk."We're cautiously optimistic," said Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, which is lobbying in favor of the legislation. "Most of the folks we've talked to at this point are supportive of the bill. Their qualms, if they have any, are really with the details - could we change this or that."The legislation would allow patients found by a physician to have a "debilitating medical condition" such as glaucoma, cancer, or AIDS to have up to six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana. Primary caregivers also would be permitted to possess marijuana. The legislation would let the state Department of Health and Senior Services issue identification cards to qualifying patients and caregivers.Thirteen states allow the use of medical marijuana. Federal law prohibits marijuana use, but most marijuana-related arrests are made under state law, according to a statement accompanying the bill. Pennsylvania does not allow medical marijuana, and its legislature has not seriously debated the issue recently.In the New Jersey Statehouse, where most votes fall along party lines, the vote tally in the Senate on medical marijuana was noteworthy: Senate President Richard J. Codey, who posted the bill, voted against, along with some fellow Democrats, and five Republicans voted in favor.Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic), a sponsor of the bill, said it was a "good sign" the legislation made it through the Senate, where Democrats hold a 23-17 majority."I think bills like this really require times and a change in attitudes, frankly," Whelan said. "I think over time, people have come to realize . . . there are some medicinal benefits to marijuana and that we can do this."One potential challenge to the legislation is that the members of the Assembly face reelection this year.Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said that meant Assembly members would be thinking about how an opponent might spin a vote on the issue come campaign season."Legislators do not want to feed potential opposition, particularly in a legislative election in November, with something that in a 30-second sound bite can be made to have a negative connotation," Harrison said.Any vote on the issue could also feed accusations that lawmakers are dealing with matters less important than the economy, she said.On the other hand, with the election comes a postelection lame-duck period, traditionally a time when controversial issues can slide through with relatively little notice.Harrison said states with far more conservative politics than New Jersey had approved medical marijuana. In New Jersey, she said, opponents have made medical marijuana appear to be the first step toward the legalization of marijuana, rather than focusing on the potential medical benefits.Although the issue remains controversial, researchers generally believe marijuana has some medicinal benefits. While the federal government has approved some medications containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC - the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - some researchers say certain patients, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, might benefit more from marijuana than from the THC drugs.Sen. Gerald Cardinale (D., Bergen) is among many opponents who say they do not mind allowing seriously ill patients to use marijuana. But he said he believed the bill in its current form would allow too many people access."What we're doing here by giving people plants to grow is a very loosey-goosey approach to the whole question and opens the door to a lot of mischief," he said. "Were those items addressed, I might have voted for it."Marijuana is not a benign substance that a bunch of old fuddy-duddies want to keep kids from using," Cardinale said. "There are very good reasons to keep it illegal."Cardinale, a dentist, said people growing marijuana would not know how potent their plants were or how large a dose to take, for example.Sen. Fred H. Madden Jr. (D., Gloucester), who also voted against the bill, views the issue from the perspective of a former acting superintendent of state police."In concept, I believe in the access to a limited number of people," Madden said. "I just believe that the language of this bill is so broad that the threat of a problem in dispensing what is a gateway drug is a problem."On the other side of the issue, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R., Morris), who has been named the most conservative member of the Legislature by New Jersey Monthly Magazine, is a sponsor of the Assembly bill.Carroll said he had never smoked a joint and did not drink alcohol."I just don't believe there's such a thing as an evil plant," Carroll said. "It seems to me our policy on this particular drug is founded less on medical evidence than on ideology."Carroll said that when his grandmother, whom he described as a "tough old bird," was dying of cancer, doctors prescribed her a potent cocktail of painkillers. "Why is that acceptable but marijuana not?" he asked."I don't think the law should stand between a patient and his or her doctor on something like this."Many New Jerseyans apparently agree. A 2006 poll commissioned by Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey of 700 registered voters found that 86 percent agreed that "seriously ill patients should have access to marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it."The bill has also received support from organizations including the New Jersey State Nurses Association.The two South Jersey lawmakers who will decide if the medical-marijuana bill is ever posted for a committee vote and then an Assembly vote have taken cautiously worded positions.Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D., Burlington), a physician who chairs the Assembly's health and senior services committee, issued a statement: "As a practicing physician, my personal opinion is to favor compassion for people in difficult health circumstances. With that in mind, as chairman of the Health and Senior Services Committee, I am reviewing the bill and its details carefully and will be canvassing the committee members as to their thoughts."Last year, I held an informational session on the bill. Now, I must examine the subsequent amendments made to the bill against the concerns expressed by the broad committee at the time of that hearing."Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), said Roberts was "open to considering it as long as he can be convinced that it will be carefully regulated and available under medical supervision only to those with truly legitimate needs."Jim Miller, 56, of Toms River, is working to legalize medical marijuana in honor of his late wife, Cheryl, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and was one the state's earliest proponents of medical marijuana.Miller said marijuana loosened her muscles enough to allow her therapy to be effective."It made all the difference in the world," Miller said. "I couldn't stand to see her suffer. I couldn't help my wife, I couldn't protect her without it."Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)Author: Adrienne Lu, Inquirer Trenton BureauPublished: March 9, 2009Copyright: 2009 Philadelphia Newspapers IncURL: Inquirer.Letters phillynews.comWebsite: Articles:NJ Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Bill N.J. Senate Approves Bill Allowing Use of MMJ
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