The Assembly debated the bill for half an hour Monday afternoon before approving it. The debate took place before galleries backed with bill supporters and opponents. It was a similar scene in the Senate a few hours later.
"It does not make sense for many of New Jersey's residents to suffer when there is a viable way to ease their pain," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors of the bill. "Medical marijuana can alleviate a lot of suffering, and there is no evidence that legalizing it for medical use increases overall drug use."
The bill will be one of the most restrictive in the nation. Patients diagnosed by their primary care physician as having a qualifying medical condition would be allowed to obtain -- but not grow -- medical marijuana through one of at least six "alternative treatment centers," or dispensaries. But patients would be able to register with only one dispensary at a time and would have to use the written recommendation within a month of when it was written.
Patients could possess up to two ounces and be prescribed up to two ounces per month. That is an increase from the one ounce possession limit in earlier versions of the bill. Patients would be able to name a caregiver, courier, or delivery option to pick up medicine at the dispensary and deliver it to them.
"This will be the strictest medical marijuana law in the nation," Gusciora said at a statehouse press conference Monday. "We have a good bill that will be very strict and will not decriminalize marijuana, but will allow doctors to prescribe the best treatment for their patients."
Also at the press conference were patients Diane Riportella and Mike Oliveri. Riportella was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease in 2007 and given no more than five years to live. Oliveri suffers from muscular dystrophy.
"I'm so excited to be able to be alive and to be here for this moment," said Riportella, 53, of Egg Harbor Township. "Within a few seconds, I'm relaxed and I'm smiling and I go to Disneyland just for a few minutes and say 'It's not so bad, I can live another day,'" Riportella said.
Oliveri, 25, said he moved from his New Jersey home to California in order to be able to legally access medical marijuana. He said he vaporizes about an ounce a week to ease the pain in his legs and back and calm his digestive tract and that he had used it illegally before leaving for the West Coast. "I took every medication known to man before I took weed," said Oliveri, 25. "I knew it was a risk... but it was a life or death matter."
Special credit goes to the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, the patient and advocate group that has fought for years to get the bill over the top. The group's executive director, Ken Wolski, was pleased with the victory, but wasn't resting on his laurels. "We are grateful that the legislators finally acknowledged that marijuana is medicine and that patients in New Jersey who use it with a doctor's recommendation should not fear arrest and imprisonment," he said after the votes. "But this is really a national issue. New Jersey citizens should be able to travel anywhere in the country and use their medicine without fear of arrest. We are calling on the federal government to reschedule marijuana to a more appropriate schedule, and to protect New Jersey patients who need to travel outside the state."
New Jersey will now join Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington in the list of medical marijuana states. Barring any unexpected hitches, that list will also soon include the District of Columbia.