New Jersey took a step toward becoming the 14th medical marijuana state Monday as a Senate committee heard testimony, then voted 6-1 (with two abstentions) to send Senate Bill 119, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, to the Senate floor, where it could be voted on as early as next month. The state Assembly has yet to vote on the bill, but Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has indicated he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
The bill would also address what has been a thorny issue in some states that have approved medical marijuana laws: the question of supply for people who cannot grow their own. To address the supply problem, the bill foresees the licensing of collective gardens where patients could obtain medical marijuana.
Monday's hearing featured testimony from patients, experts, and drug reformers, as well as written testimony from the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in support of the bill.
It began with an impassioned argument by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union County), the bill's original sponsor. "There is no price we would not pay, no limits to which we would not go" to prevent loved ones from suffering needlessly, Scutari told his colleagues on the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.
Scutari addressed opponents who argued that the state should wait for the US Food and Drug Administration to approve marijuana. "There is little comfort in the promise of a better drug 10 years from now," he said, noting that the federal government has ignored recommendations to conduct clinical trials with medical marijuana.
Dr. Denis Petro, a board-certified neurologist in neighboring Pennsylvania with a quarter-century of experience in neurology, clinical pharmacology, and marijuana research also testified. He told the committee how he conducted the first American study of marijuana's beneficial effects for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients 1981. It was time for New Jersey to approve a medical marijuana bill, he told the committee.
"There is no doubt that medical marijuana will eventually be allowed in New Jersey", said Kenneth Wolski, an RN, who with Jim Miller, the widow of New Jersey medical marijuana patient/activist Cheryl Miller, co-founded the Coalition for Medical Marijuana--New Jersey to press for such a bill five years ago. "There is too much logic, common sense, compassion and science that supports it. Logic says that doctors prescribe far more dangerous and addicting drugs than marijuana; common sense says that this issue ought to be decided in the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, in the best interest of the patient; Compassion says that no patient should suffer needlessly; and there is a wealth of scientific evidence that supports the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana," Wolski concluded.
Although medical marijuana legislation had been offered each year since 2004, it had failed to move. But the Senate Health committee made up for lost time Monday, immediately voting to send the bill to the Senate floor with its stamp of approval. Patients and advocates were quick to thank the committee.
"It really brings me to tears, not just for me as someone suffering from multiple sclerosis, but as a registered nurse and for all the people that I've treated," said Elise Segal, who had testified in support of the bill earlier in the day.
"We want to thank the senators on the committee for voting for the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office and a tireless campaigner in Trenton. "The bottom line is about compassion. If you or someone you love is seriously ill and none of the available medications relieved the suffering, wouldn't you want access to medical marijuana if a doctor recommended it? New Jerseyans overwhelmingly support this legislation and we are grateful to the committee for hearing their voices."
"I am pleased to see the support of the committee for Senate Bill 119," said Dr. Petro. "With passage of the legislation, patients with serious and life-threatening disorders can be offered a safe and effective alternative when conventional therapy is inadequate. The bill represents a positive step toward a rational policy regarding medical marijuana."
"I am thrilled that today members of the Senate Health Committee supported the common sense and compassionate response to suffering," said Nora Bertocci, a registered nurse and chair of the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which works with sick and dying patients on a daily basis. "Medical marijuana is used very successfully in other states and in other countries. We should not be asking 'why should we legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes?' but rather 'why shouldn't we?'"
Since California led the way in 1996, 13 states have passed laws providing for the medicinal use of marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State. Last month, Michigan voters made it the first Midwest state to join the list. If the New Jersey Assembly acts next year, it could become the first Mid-Atlantic state to join.