N.J.'s failed medical marijuana law and other states eager to repeat it

NEW JERSEY: New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is a failed experiment but one that Delaware and other states seem enthusiastic to repeat.

The reality is that after years of delays and harsh over-regulation, NJ residents with serious illnesses and even state-issued marijuana ID cards continue to be arrested. Limited or no access is the issue.

Governor Chris Christie played doctor again last week making political spin out of therapeutic cannabis and the healthcare of one desperately ill child. Claiming to make changes passed by the Legislature to the NJ Medicinal Marijuana Program (NJ MMP) what Christie has eventually allowed will make little tangible difference for patients.

Right now the program is bogged down by a multiplicity of regulations that are micro-managed and almost hand-crafted by Christie and his counsel Kevin O’Dowd (whose wife Mary O’Dowd also happens to be the current Commissioner of the NJ Department of Health).

Since 2010 they have consistently thrown science out the door, shut out the input of patients and relied almost exclusively on law enforcement consultants.   For instance, the only concession Christie was willing to make in his recent conditional veto was to lift a ban on each Alternative Treatment Center growing more than three strains of cannabis. However, three years ago, Christie included a far-reaching and all-political regulation that remains firmly in place: the 10% cap on THC. The arbitrary THC cap continues to apply to all strains of NJ medical marijuana.

Patients along with medical and scientific experts have testified numerous times before legislative committees and the Department of Health about the THC cap, but to no avail. Many patients said they would seek better quality cannabis underground than participate in a program with a THC cap, defeating the entire purpose of compassionate access.

Arrests continue

The rest of the country may think the Garden State has gone green for marijuana, but for residents here who thought they would have convenient access to cannabis, nothing has changed; prohibition remains. Joseph D‘Souza, a 54-year-old cancer and chemotherapy patient was surrounded by eight police cars in Bayonne last April, then searched by dog. Joe was arrested for having a few grams of pot and a pipe. He’s one of New Jersey’s approximately 1,000 registered patients.

Although D’Souza has an ID card he was never able to obtain legal marijuana from the state’s single sometimes operating dispensary.  Caught with underground cannabis he had no legal protections.  Police simply ignored his ID card. Joe’s case was eventually settled with fines. GreenLeaf Compassion Center in Montclair, NJ had a much ballyhooed grand opening in late 2012 but they had problems almost immediately.

Charging patients high-grade street prices along with a special tax they failed to serve the entire patient population. Instead of trying for better access Greenleaf scaled back, opening sometimes just one day every two weeks to a handful of patients. After closing down completely for two months Greenleaf is now making appointments to patients only in their immediate vicinity. That move was a surprise to the NJ Department of Health.

No other Alternative Treatment Centers are open even part-time.

Mike Miceli suffers from Crohn’s Disease and is registered with the NJ MMP. He worked hard to find a doctor willing to participate in the nation’s only state-run physician registry for cannabis. Mike was also unable to get an appointment with Greenleaf for some legal weed.

Miceli was arrested in Robbinsville during a traffic stop in May. He also had only a few grams of cannabis and a pipe. After facing drug prohibition and paraphernalia charges Miceli also ended up with fines. But if these patients had been parents or themselves minors the arrest itself could have been devastating.

“The program fluctuates between dysfunction and total failure,” said Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and director of The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. Wolski has been involved with the NJ legislation since 2005.

“In three and half years we’ve managed to get marijuana to about 125 patients. By what criteria would you say this is a successful program?”

 

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