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New Jersey Patients Fume Over Medical Marijuana Law Delays [FEATURE]

One of outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine's last acts before leaving office in January was to sign New Jersey's Compassionate Use Act Medical Marijuana Act, allowing qualified patients in the Garden State to use medical marijuana. The law was supposed to go into effect on July 1, and if Corzine had remained governor, most everyone involved in the process agrees that would have happened.

NJ patients share victory hug after medical marijuana bill passes, January 2010 (courtesy cmmnj.org)
But New Jersey voters chose to replace the Democrat Corzine with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has been dragging his feet. This summer, Christie asked for a six to 12-month delay in implementing the bill. The legislature gave him three months, until October 1.

That means only that the state Department of Health will then begin drafting regulations. It will have another 90 days after that to do so, pushing the law's effective date to January 1. But even that date is a chimera; given that registered patients will have to get their medicine from a state-licensed dispensary, or alternative treatment center, and given that marijuana takes a minimum of roughly three months to grow, even if potential dispensary operators are ready to go on January 1, it will be sometime in the spring of 2011 at the earliest before New Jersey patients are able to take advantage of the law.

Christie has also been floating proposals to change various aspects of the law. Last month, he proposed making Rutgers University the monopoly supplier. That proposal disturbed patients and advocates, but ultimately went nowhere when Rutgers declined the invitation, citing concerns about federal law. Christie has also raised concerns about New Jersey suffering the same allegedly dire experience California has gone through with its Wild West medical marijuana experience.

But the New Jersey law is already one of the strictest in the nation. It limits access to medical marijuana to people with a specified list of diseases, it limits the amount of marijuana patients can possess to two ounces per month, and it does not allow patients or their caregivers to grow their own medicine. Instead, at least six state-licensed alternative treatment centers, two in each region of the state, will grow and distribute medical marijuana.

Patients and advocates are watching uneasily as the state moves at a leisurely pace toward implementation. They are not happy with the tightness of the law, they are not happy with the delays, and they are casting a suspicious eye on Christie.

"Even in a best case scenario, patients won't be getting medical marijuana in New Jersey until maybe March or April of 2011 from these alternative treatment centers," said Ken Wolski of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, the primary patient advocacy group in the state.

"Christie has been dragging his feet," said Wolski. "He had to appoint a new health commissioner, so he asked for a six to 12-month delay. He said he doesn't want New Jersey to turn into California, but we don't see how that could happen because the New Jersey law is so tight and the alternative treatment centers will be so strictly regulated by the Department of Health. A majority of the legislature accepted his reasons, but only gave him three months."

"The governor asked for an extension of six months to a year, and we fought that off," said Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, which also lobbied for passage of the bill. "There was talk then of other changes; Christie was saying he needed changes in the law to be able to let Rutgers do it, and we've heard rumors of other changes. But our sponsor, Sen. Scutari, has been very adamant. The law doesn't need any more changes. It is the law, and they need to implement it," she said.

"We did not support the idea of a monopoly at Rutgers or anywhere else, and that continues to be our position," said Scotti. "When we talked to the health department, they seemed to be leaning toward trying to limit it in some way, which we are fighting against. You can't just decide on your own you're going to limit the people who do this."

The Teaching Hospitals of New Jersey floated a proposal in which they would become the sole dispensers of medical marijuana. The Drug Policy Alliance also opposed that.

"We met with them and asked them how they think they could legally do that, since they would be violating federal law," said Scotti. "They didn't have any answer for that. If they want to be a dispensary, even if they want to open several, we are not opposed to that, but we are not in favor of any kind of monopoly."

While the Christie administration talks about opening six dispensaries across the state, there is no limit on the number of dispensaries potentially allowed. The bill specifies only at least six.

"We're advocating that competition is good, that anyone who is capable of producing a good product and meeting the understandable security needs of the state should be able to provide services to patients in need," said Scotti. "The Christie administration seems to be latching onto the six, but that isn’t the law."

Marta Portuguez of Roselle Park is one of the law's potential beneficiaries. The 49-year-old woman suffers from 10 different illnesses, including gastroparesis, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Her symptoms include muscle spasms, attacks of nausea, and severe pain.

"The diseases are my constant companions," she said. "I'm on pain medications, and the doctors don't allow me to work. Not that I could -- I find it impossible to sit for more than half an hour."

Portuguez turned to medical marijuana on the advice of a family member who knew someone very ill whose doctor had recommending trying it. "I didn't really know anything about it, but the more research I did, the more clear it became that it would be a great help. My stomach is dead, and I needed medication I don't have to take orally," she explained.

"They brought some to me and it was like a miracle," Portuguez exclaimed. "I went from horrific pain 24-7 even with morphine, to almost no pain, almost immediately. I could be rolled up in a ball shaking and puking my guts out, and when I use it, that immediately starts dissipating. It's quite remarkable. I can sit down with my husband and children and enjoy a movie. I have a little bit better quality of life; I'm not always so sick."

But because marijuana is illegal, Portuguez is unable to get regular access to it. "I don't have it all the time," she said. "It's sporadic. I'm not comfortable with the fact that it's illegal, that's why it's so important for it to be legalized. It's about compassion and helping your fellow human beings."

Portuguez has been waiting for the law to be implemented, and when informed that it would be next spring at the earliest before medical marijuana would be available in New Jersey, she didn't take the news well.

"I think that's outrageous," she said, her voice quivering. "I get very upset. The governor is not doing the right thing. I understand that there are things that need to be followed, but how can somebody get up there and say he's going to try to stop the law we passed? How can they keep delaying and not consider the suffering they are making people go through? I think he's doing it because he doesn't have anyone ill in his family. Then, and only then, will he really understand. It's the Compassionate Use Act, but they're not acting very compassionate."

While the delay in implementing the law is painful, it is not a surprise, said Scotti. Nor is it a surprise that patients and advocates are keeping the heat on.

"I've seen lots of regulations in New Jersey and other states take this long," she said. "It's not unusual, but we are constantly checking in with the health department and with legislators and talking to Sen. Scutari about keeping the pressure on. Our patients are very vocal and active."

Although patients and advocates are pushing hard to get the Compassionate Use Act up and running, they are also quick to point out its flaws. "While we're happy that marijuana is officially recognized as medicine in the Garden State, the law has a lot of shortcomings," said Wolski. "The legislature was very wary of allowing medical marijuana in New Jersey and went with the most restrictive law in the nation."

"The main problem is that home cultivation was taken out, which means that patients are unable to grow their own like they are in the 13 other states," said Wolski. "We see that as an important part of health care reform. Home cultivation would take the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries out of the equation and empower patients to help themselves."

Wolski also cited the quantity limits as inadequate for some patients. "The two ounce a month limit will be adequate for maybe half the patients," he said. "Hospice patients have tremendous needs for the constant medical care marijuana can bring to them, and limiting chronic pain patients to two ounces a month is not enough."

The number of conditions qualifying for medical marijuana use has shrunk, too, Wolski explained. While the final version of the bill includes seizure sufferers, cancer patients, glaucoma patients, HIV/AIDS sufferers, and people with multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gerhrig's Disease), it does not include other neurological disorders, nor does it cover mental or emotional conditions.

"The Assembly Health Committee limited the law to three neurological conditions, but if medical marijuana is neuroprotective, it should be neuroprotective for all neurological conditions," said Wolski, a registered nurse. "And bipolar disease, ADHD, PTSD, anxiety disorders, they don't qualify, and that's a real shame. I think the Department of Health will address the issue of qualifying conditions, but we have our work cut out for us."

"Our fondest hope is that the law will be implemented the way it was written, and that the Department of Health's regulations will reflect the wording of the law to establish at least six nonprofit alternative treatment centers," said Wolski. "Our expectation is that this is what's going to happen, but there are fears the governor is trying to take over the medical marijuana industry," he said, alluding to Gov. Christie's abortive plan to have Rutgers University monopolize production.

New Jersey has a medical marijuana law. It may not be the best medical marijuana law, but it is a medical marijuana law and it will provide protection to at least some patients. Warts and all, New Jersey patients and advocates are working as hard as they can to get it up and running as soon as they can.

NJ
United States

Alabama Patient Facing 10 Years for a Gram of Medical Marijuana [FEATURE]

Activists in Alabama have been trying for years to get a medical marijuana bill passed there. Last year, for the first time, a bill made it out of committee. Next year, they will try again, but even if they succeed, it will be too late for Michael Lapihuska.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/michael-lapihuska.jpg
Michael Lapihuska, facing camera, wearing Alabamans for Compassionate Care t-shirt
Lapihuska, cursed with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), grew up in Alabama, but left the state after serving 13 months for possessing five grams of marijuana in 2003. The now card-carrying medical marijuana patient from California was arrested on marijuana possession charges again on December 15 in Anniston, Alabama, as he visited his family for the holidays.

Lapihuska was stopped by a police officer and accused of hitch hiking as he walked down a road. The officer demanded he be allowed to search Lapihuska, and he complied. The search came up with a prescription bottle containing one gram of marijuana. Lapihuska explained that he was a registered California medical marijuana patient and produced a patient ID card.

But Alabama justice doesn't recognize medical marijuana, and Lapihuska was charged with his third marijuana possession offense, this one worth between two and 10 years in state prison. Under Alabama law, a first marijuana offense is a misdemeanor, but a second possession offense is a felony punishable by a year in prison. A third possession offense is a felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

"Alabama is a terrible, terrible place when it comes to drug laws," noted Loretta Nall, a long-time Alabama drug reform activist and leader of Alabamians for Compassionate Care, a medical marijuana activist group that has taken up Lapihuska's cause.

Lapihuska's public defender is urging him to cop a plea in which he would be sentenced to one year, with the sentence suspended and two years probation. But that deal also includes drug testing, and that's a deal-breaker for him. "Everyone says just take the probation, but if I did that, I'd end up in prison anyway for failing the drug test," he said.

"This is Anniston, Alabama," said Laiphuska. "There is no way I'm going to win this case. But my doctor told me this was my recommended medicine. If I was prescribed Oxycontin, or morphine, or Xanax and was walking down the road, they would have had to give my medicine back. I broke the law, but I think the law is wrong. I'm looking at two to 10 years for a gram of marijuana prescribed by my doctor?"

Lapihuska has been stuck in Alabama since December while awaiting trial. It hasn't exactly been fun, he said. "I've been miserable and anxious. I just want to go someplace where my medicine is safe and legal and I'm not at risk for using the medicine that works best for me."

In addition to repeated stints behind bars for using marijuana, Lapihuska has been hospitalized for mental health reasons 20 to 30 times, he said. "I've been on all sorts of medication. Most of my life has been eaten up with anxiety. They've tried Xanax, Thorazine, all kinds of things. They even gave me an anti-Parkinson's disease medicine and told me I would have to take it the rest of my life. I would sleep 16 hours a day on those meds, I'd be shaking," he recalled.

"But now, I feel better than I've ever felt," he said. "I ride my bicycle 50 to 150 miles a day. And now they're arresting me for the thing that cures me."

Unless he or state prosecutors relent, Lapihuska goes to trial October 28. If it comes to that, the Alabama medical marijuana community will do what it can, just as it has been beating the bushes to publicize the case already.

"Here in Alabama, our only hope of helping Michael out if this goes to trial is to do some jury nullification work," said Nall. "When he goes to trial, myself and other members of ACC will do some handouts at the courthouse to inform people about the true nature of the situation, that he was not just some guy smoking weed. We hope to find one person on the jury to vote to nullify."

Nall and ACC, for whom Lapihuska has been volunteering while he awaits trial, have been laying the groundwork for that by getting the story out. "We got a great article in the Anniston Star," she said. "That generated nothing but wonderful comments on the web site and three letters to the editor, all positive. We've been getting a lot of positive feedback on Facebook, too."

Lapihuska's plight may help the cause of advancing medical marijuana at the statehouse. Rep. Patricia Todd, sponsor of last year's medical marijuana bill, said she would reintroduce it for the session that begins in March. She would try to make it more palatable to law enforcement, she said.

"I'll pre-file the bill after the first of the year," Todd said. "We plan to sit down with law enforcement and health people, and may make some changes to appease law enforcement. I think the bill will start out with three dispensaries around the state, to be regulated by the health department. I think patients being able to grow will be part of it. The main heartburn the health department has is how to regulate it, how to know who's growing what."

While movement on medical marijuana in the legislature has been painfully slow, Todd expressed guarded optimism that her bill would move next year. Last year, for the first time, it got out of a House committee. But much depends on the outcome of the November elections.

"If the Republicans take over the legislature, the bill is going nowhere," she said. "If the Democrats keep control, it'll still be an uphill battle. We got it out of committee last year; this year, I hope we can get it to a floor vote."

"It should be coming up very early in the session," Todd said. "Attitudes are changing. Legislators watch the news, and we have a pretty good grassroots effort going. The main fear last year was that we don't want to be like California, with a dispensary on every corner, and I think we will have addressed that.

Todd said that had her bill passed last year, Lapihuska wouldn’t be facing the problems he is. "Our bill has the reciprocity clause in, and that would protect Michael and people like him," she said.

"It's totally ridiculous," said Todd. "He had a card that identified him as being able to use medical marijuana. I'm trying to change this, but this is the Deep South," she sighed.

If Lapihuska is sent to prison, it will be a tight squeeze. Alabama's prisons are at 180% of capacity, Todd noted.

"Our corrections commissioner makes the point to the legislature each year that he wishes we would quit passing laws to incarcerate more people," she said. "But I'm the only one who ever votes against them. Most of our elected officials are afraid they will be perceived as soft on crime, but the war on drugs isn't working, we have more people addicted than ever before. I think marijuana should be legal, and I'll keep on fighting."

So, it appears, will Michael Lapihuska -- unless he can persuade prosecutors to offer a sweeter deal. "I would accept two years of unsupervised probation in California, but for me to have to stay here and do drug rehab for my doctor approved medication, that's ridiculous. And with drug testing, if I use my medicine, I violate probation."

Anniston, AL
United States

Boulder Extends Deadline for Medical Marijuana Businesses

Location: 
Boulder, CO
United States
The Boulder, Colorado city manager extended the deadline for existing medical marijuana businesses to apply for an operating license, citing massive confusion about the city's rules. If the deadline had not been extended, the majority of the city's dispensaries and growing operations would be operating illegally, though owners may not have known it.
Publication/Source: 
Daily Camera (CO)
URL: 
http://www.dailycamera.com/boulder-county-news/ci_16137036

Medical Marijuana Dispensary Ban Fails

Location: 
CA
United States
A proposed 45-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Orange County failed by one vote today. The county ordinance, which would have immediately banned new dispensaries and existing dispensaries without the proper permits, needed to be approved by 4/5ths of the board of supervisors. Supervisors John Moorlach and Shawn Nelson voted against the emergency ordinance, arguing there wasn’t an emergency to warrant immediate adoption of the freeze on dispensaries.
Publication/Source: 
The Orange County Register (CA)
URL: 
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/marijuana-267449-county-medical.html

Demonstrators Protest Proposed Changes to Medical Marijuana Laws

Location: 
MT
United States
The 2011 Montana legislature will be taking up changes to the Montana Medical Marijuana Act voters passed in 2004. Demonstrators held signs in Missoula, saying "Leave medical marijuana alone' and 'Don't take our medicine from us.' They warn the legislative bill could double fees for patients, limit caregivers' service, charge a $10,000 fee to dispensaries, and set other restrictions.
Publication/Source: 
KECI (MT)
URL: 
http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/25093932/detail.html

Judge Calls for Clarity in Michigan's Medical Marijuana Law: Lawmakers Urged to Act Against Backdrop of Recent Clinic Raids

Location: 
MI
United States
A Michigan Court of Appeals judge urged lawmakers to clarify the state's medical marijuana law, saying the "inartfully drafted" measure has resulted in confusion and arrests. The judge said the law is so confusing that users "who proceed without due caution" could "lose both their property and their liberty."
Publication/Source: 
The Detroit News (MI)
URL: 
http://www.detnews.com/article/20100916/METRO/9160411/Judge-calls-for-clarity-in-Michigan-s-medical-marijuana-law

Bans on Fake Pot Do Little to Deter Business

Authorities in 13 states thought they were acting to curb a public health threat when they outlawed a form of synthetic marijuana known as K2, a concoction of dried herbs sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid. Barely six months after Kansas adopted the nation's first ban on K2, even police acknowledge that the laws are all but meaningless because merchants can so easily offer legal alternatives.
Publication/Source: 
The Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gU-AZUSOFOcP59tVoxdsnxxGHfggD9I8HAEO0

San Diego City Embarks On Regulations for Medicinal Marijuana Dispensaries

Location: 
San Diego, CA
United States
San Diego City Council has voted to start developing land use regulations that would define where medicinal marijuana dispensaries can legally operate. Currently, more than 100 dispensaries operate in the city. Kate Valentine of Americans for Safe Access calculates the proposed zoning would only allow about 15 dispensaries.
Publication/Source: 
KPBS (CA)
URL: 
http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/sep/14/san-diego-city-embarks-regulations-medicinal-marij/

Michigan Bill Would Allow Roadside Drug Tests

Michigan could become the first state in the nation to drug test drivers if a Republican lawmaker has his way. Last week, Rep. Rick Jones (R-Grand Lodge) announced he was filing a bill that would allow police officers to administer roadside drug tests if they have probable cause.

traffic stop scene, from "10 Rules for Dealing with Police" (buy at stopthedrugwar.org/10rules)
Jones, a former sheriff, said the roadside tests could replace what is now an expensive and time-consuming process. Currently, officers who want to test drivers for drugs must get a search warrant to take a blood sample, which is then tested by backlogged state crime labs.

"A portable drug testing kit would be an extremely powerful tool to keep unsafe drivers off our streets. With a portable kit, officers will know in minutes whether the driver is high on drugs," Jones said in a statement

"The kit has the potential to save a great deal of tax dollars by reducing the need for state crime labs to do many tests," Jones continued. "Patrol officers now have to make a judgment call whether they believe a driver is under the influence of drugs. Science has now caught up with the need, and our patrol officers should have the option of using this valuable public safety tool."

Under the proposal, suspected drugged drivers would have to submit to a preliminary saliva drug test that can detect six kinds of drugs, including marijuana, methamphetamines, and cocaine. If the preliminary test, which produces results in minutes, came back positive, additional testing would occur.

The motivation for Jones' bill appears to be his opposition to the state medical marijuana law, enacted by the will of the voters in 2008. Last month, he introduced a bill that would bar medical marijuana "clubs and bars" throughout the state. In a statement then, the former sheriff worried about "clubs where users could get high and drive away, endangering people."

Jones' legislation is actually a three-part package, with House Bill 6430 covering motor vehicles, HB 6431 covering snowmobiles and ATVs, and HB 6432 covering trains.

[Ed: Along with the civil liberties issues, this proposal deserves scrutiny based on the drug test technology in use as well. Research has found that field drug tests commonly in use by police generate frequent false positives, sometimes from mere exposure to air.]

Lansing, MI
United States

Michigan May Be First to Adopt Roadside Drug Testing: Cops Could Check Your Saliva

Location: 
MI
United States
Michigan drivers could become the first in the nation subject to roadside drug testing under a bill introduced Wednesday in the legislature.
Publication/Source: 
Detroit Free Press (MI)
URL: 
http://www.freep.com/article/20100909/NEWS06/9090347/Michigan-may-be-1st-to-adopt-roadside-drug-testing

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