Push for Medical Marijuana Legislation Underway in New Jersey 9/10/04

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Young musician Sean McGrath was a "straight edge," meaning he didn't smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs. But when he developed biliary cancer (cancer of the bile duct) and couldn't keep his medicine down because of nausea induced by chemotherapy, one of his doctors suggested he use marijuana. It helped immensely in reducing the pain and nausea, and improved McGrath's quality of life.

But while pot eased his last days, it couldn't save him from the cancer. McGrath died in June, and now his family has taken up the cause of legalizing medical marijuana in his home state of New Jersey. On August 28, the McGraths hosted what they hope is the opening salvo in a push that will lead to the passage of a medical marijuana bill in the Garden State this year.

In a meeting that garnered local press attention and provoked a favorable editorial from the Trenton Times, more than 70 people gathered at the McGrath home in Robbinsville to hear patients, family members, activists, civil libertarians and legislators speak in support of the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. While still only in draft form, the bill has picked up two cosponsors who will introduce it in the state legislative assembly later this month.

Jim Miller, alongside CMMNJ banner and photos of Sean McGrath
(courtesy CMMNJ)
The push for the bill is being led by a group formed a year ago, the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey (http://www.cmmnj.org). Led by long-time medical marijuana activist Jim Miller, whose wife Cheryl (http://www.cherylheart.org) used medical marijuana until her death in June 2003, and registered nurse Ken Wolski, who authored a pro-medical marijuana resolution adopted by the New Jersey State Nurses Association in 2002, the coalition has won a $40,000 grant from the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) to help propel the bill forward.

"We're working with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, the local group that has led the way on this," confirmed MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "We're trying to be as helpful as we can, and we are very encouraged by the progress they're making and the good press they're generating," he told DRCNet.

The act would set up a registry of qualifying patients -- those whose doctors have issued written recommendations that marijuana would be useful for a medical condition and that the benefits of its use would outweigh the harms. Under the draft language, patients and providers "shall not be subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, including, but not limited to, civil penalty or disciplinary action by a professional licensing board, for the medical use of marijuana, provided that the patient possesses a registry identification card and no more than six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana."

Ken Wolski addresses the assemblage
(courtesy CMMNJ)
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton Borough) and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Township), arguably the most liberal and the most conservative members of the Assembly, have transcended ideological differences to introduce the bill together. "I am not one of the most conservative members of the Assembly," protested Carroll. "I am the most conservative, and I'm cosponsoring this bill because it's a good idea. It's that simple," he told DRCNet. "The fact is, there is no such thing as an evil plant. Marijuana is no different from any other drug, and if a doctor says it can help you, why should we as a society stand in the way? It's not right. Is that libertarian enough for you?"

Gusciora was unavailable for comment to DRCNet, but he told the Trenton News last week he was acting in response to constituent requests and because marijuana can be helpful. "I had a constituent whose son passed away from cancer," Gusciora said. "And another constituent whose wife passed away from cancer." Medical marijuana could have helped in both cases, he said. "I don't think we should make criminals out of our terminally ill," Gusciora added.

"I've been working on Gusciora for the last four or five years," said Miller, who might fairly be called the grandfather of medical marijuana activism in the state with a record going back to 1993. "He had met Cheryl and drafted a bill, but then he pulled it back. He thinks it will be easier to get it through now, and I think it can get out of committee and get passed."

There are two chokepoints in the process, said Miller, Health Committee chair Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Speaker of the House Albio Sires (D-West New York). "When Albio asks for something to be brought up, it gets out of committee," explained Miller. "Loretta Weinberg and Albio need to understand there is strong public support for this, as well as bipartisan sponsorship. I don't care if you're for it or against it, but we will not let this die in committee. Let people speak against it on the floor and vote it down if they want, but let's have a debate. People like Sean and Cheryl are suffering and dying right now."

Miller may be able to take credit for bringing conservative Republican Assemblyman Carroll on board. "Six months ago, I went to Trenton and suggested to Gusciora's people that they talk to Carroll, who's so far right that he's a libertarian. Gusciora is about the most liberal member of the Assembly, so his people bristled and said 'no way will we work with that guy.' But as of three weeks ago, Carroll is a cosponsor. That could only have happened because Gusciora brought him on board."

Don McGath, father of Sean McGrath
(courtesy CMMNJ)
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is also supporting the bill. "It's a matter of compassion," explained state ACLU legal director Edward Barokas. "There are a number of our citizens who are adversely affected by their inability to obtain medical marijuana, and they are affected in a very real way," he told DRCNet. "Also, there is the right to privacy, to be left alone. Individuals have a right to make important decisions about what they wish to do with their own bodies, and the issue is all the more important when we are talking about one's health and medical treatment. The government should be held to a very high standard when it seeks to deny someone the ability to engage in a medical treatment recommended by his doctor."

The New Jersey ACLU will work to see the bill succeed, said Barokas. "We will lobby for its passage, and we are optimistic. There are people on both sides of the aisle who want to reign in the government's ability to legislate what we can do with our own bodies. With medical marijuana, we hold the high moral ground. That lies with those who seek to instill a sense of compassion in our laws, and I believe that once voters and legislators hear the stories of Sean and Cheryl, they will see and understand the real life benefits that will flow from such a compassionate piece of legislation."

For Don McGrath, it's about doing something his son wanted to do, but ran out of time. "Up until Sean was ill, he didn't drink at all, he was against smoking, and he didn't take any drugs," said his father, Don. "He was a vegan. But with the chemo, his whole gastrointestinal system was compromised and he had a hard time eating," he told DRCNet. "When one of his doctors recommended he try marijuana for the pain and the nausea, he was initially resistant, but he realized he had to do something. It was a bad situation; he was down to 97 pounds. He didn't know where to get any, but some of his friends did. It worked. It made the other drugs effective because he could actually keep them down long enough for them to work," he said.

"On June 11, we got him ready for another chemo session, but his fever spiked, and by 2:00pm, he couldn't even talk. We asked him would he like some pot, he nodded his head yes, we put some in his pipe, he took one drag, and an hour later he died," said McGrath. "And what bugs the hell out of me is that everyone in that room, including Sean, could have been arrested. At the end, Sean wanted to do something for medical marijuana, but he didn't make it, so here I am," McGrath explained.

"Sean McGrath's family rallied around him, got him what he needed, and helped him grow it," said long-time medical marijuana activist Jim Miller, "And now they're left asking why they had to go through all that. That stirs people up," Miller told DRCNet.

Now, let's see if the New Jersey legislature can bestir itself to deal with the matter.

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Issue #353, 9/10/04 They're Back! Two DEA Raids on California Medical Marijuana Operations in Two Weeks | Push for Medical Marijuana Legislation Underway in New Jersey | CRCM Makes Final Court Bid to Get Marijuana Regulation Initiative on Nevada Ballot | DRCNet Book Review: "My Cocaine Museum," by Michael Taussig (2004, University of Chicago Press, 360 pp., $22.50 HB) | Action Alert: Judiciary Committee Taking Up HEA Drug Provision | Newsbrief: Pittsburgh Gives Preliminary Okay to Continuing Needle Exchange Program | Newsbrief: German Drug Deaths Down, Government Cites Harm Reduction Policies | Newsbrief: Initiative Fails to Make Ballot in Arkansas, Another Gets Kicked Off Ballot in Tallahassee | Newsbrief: MPP Sues Minneapolis over Medical Marijuana Ballot Access | Newsbrief: Denver Post Says Legalize It | Newsbrief: Canada's National Post Says Legalize It | Newsbrief: US and Philippines in Joint "Narcoterrorism" Exercises | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar

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