Efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill in the Garden State are moving at a glacial pace, but they are moving. For the first time ever in New Jersey, medical marijuana will be the topic of a legislative hearing, which is set for next month. With this year's legislative session approaching summer recess, there is little chance of passage this year, but getting a state Senate committee hearing is a good start, supporters said.
"We're excited about this," said Ken Wolski, RN, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey (CMMNJ), the group leading the fight. "Just getting the issue out to the legislators and the public is good for us. We have logic, science, common sense, compassion, and fiscal responsibility on our side," he told DRCNet.
Sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), SB 88, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act and a companion bill in the Assembly would allow people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS wasting syndrome, chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures and persistent muscle spasms, among other conditions, to use and possess medical marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation. Patients and caregivers would register with the state and be provided ID cards. They would be limited to six marijuana plants and up to one ounce of dry marijuana.
The June hearing will be held in the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Care Committee chaired by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), and proponents are in the process of firming up their roster of witnesses, said Wolski. "We get to have four people testify, and they will include Sen. Scutari, Dr. John Morgan from the City of University of New York, New Jersey State Nurses Association representative Sharon Rainer, and one doctor from a state where medical marijuana is legal to explain to members how it works there," he said.
The New Jersey State Nurses Association is among groups endorsing the measure. It also has the support of Gov. John Corzine (D), who has said he will sign a medical marijuana bill into law. Polls put public support for medical marijuana among New Jerseyites in the 80% range.
But it also has opposition, although at present that seems to be limited to a pair of professional drug fighters, Ocean County Deputy District Attorney Terence Farley and Drug Free Schools Coalition executive director David Evans. Farley, who is also director of the Ocean County narcotics strike force and spokesman for the New Jersey Narcotics Officers Association and the New Jersey Narcotics Commanders Association, is the leading anti-drug reform voice in New Jersey.
Farley did not return DRCNet calls for comment, but this week he told the Associated Press he opposed the medical marijuana bill. "This is how they're trying to get marijuana legalized," Farley said.
Evans, meanwhile, has been busy penning an anti-medical marijuana op-ed that appeared in the Asbury Park Press Wednesday in which he, too, accused medical marijuana of being a stalking horse for legalization. "We take no issue with people who are legitimately ill," he wrote. "We are against those who have manipulated sick people to promote the legalization of marijuana."
Marijuana is unproven, Evans wrote, citing the Food & Drug Administration's widely criticized one-page position statement issued last month, but ignoring the much more comprehensive 1999 Institute of Medicine study that found great marijuana has proven medical uses, as well as numerous others that have found medicinal merit in the herb. People shouldn't be allowed to use medical marijuana just because it makes them feel better, Evans wrote. "They may be feeling better, but they are not actually getting better. They may even be getting worse due to the detrimental effects of marijuana."
CMMNJ cofounder Jim Miller disagreed. "For many really ill people, marijuana is their best medicine," he said. Miller, whose wife, Cheryl died in 2003 after decades of struggling with Multiple Sclerosis, said she used it to relax her muscles enough to continue physical therapy.
Wolski and Miller wonder what other opposition will show up. "There are a few representatives who have said they do not support medical marijuana," said Wolski, "but anybody who doesn't support it is not supporting the will of the people. But other than those reps and Farley and Evans, we're waiting to see if the Office of National Drug Control Policy will send down some big guns from Washington. We know they've done that in the past."
While the committee hearing is informational only and will not result in a vote, proponents are gearing up to make the most of it. The coalition will do a joint press conference the day before the hearing with the Drug Policy Alliance and is calling on supporters to show up. "We need people to come out and show support, to let the legislature know this is an issue New Jersey citizens support," said Wolski.
Another way to show support, Wolski said, is by opening up wallets. While the coalition got a grant from the Marijuana Policy Project in 2003-2004, that grant was not renewed and the group is currently a low-budget, all-volunteer effort. "MPP is supportive and have offered help from one of their legislative analysts, but that doesn't pay the bills," Wolski said. The group is offering wristbands, pins, and t-shirts for sale via its web site for those who would like to contribute, he emphasized.
Now, after nearly two years of legislative inaction, the battle for medical marijuana in the New Jersey is getting under way. Wolski is confident victory will come. "I'm not sure when we will win, but I know we will win in the end," he said. "You can only fool the American people for so long."