N.J. Assembly committee passes bill to allow 'medical marijuana'

June 5th, 2009 – TRENTON — The effort to allow severely ill New Jerseyans to use medical marijuana gained momentum today as an Assembly committee cleared a revamped bill that would also set strict limits on who can grow, distribute or get the drug.

The bill, which would make New Jersey the 14th state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes, includes restrictions lawmakers added in response to criticism that a measure the Senate passed in Feburary was too lax because it would have allowed patients to grow their own.
Medical marijuana

“When all other medical conventional treatments do not work, this will at least give an opportunity for patients and their doctors to explore other methods of treatment, but in a responsible way,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors.

The bill cleared the Assembly Health Committee after supporters said the drug eases pain for severely ill patients, and opponents countered that legalizing marijuana for any use sends the wrong message to young people. The vote prompted a wave of applause and a chorus of “thank-yous” in the packed committee room.

The amended “New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act,” would not permit people to grow their own marijuana, instead creating licensed “alternative treatment centers” to produce the drug.

It would also have tougher restrictions on who would be allowed to legally acquire marijuana. The Senate bill would have made people eligible for medical marijuana based on symptoms, such as chronic pain and muscle spasms. The bill approved yesterday restricts eligibilty to people who suffer from specific diseases.

“This bill will be the most restrictive in the United States,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), sponsor of the original bill who admitted this version is stricter than he would have liked. “But this is real progress … We do owe a special duty to our ill and infirm.”

The illnesses that would qualify patients for the program are cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and “any other medical condition” approved by the state health department, according to the bill.

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), a physician, repeatedly said the bill would pass, although there may be more changes.

Diane Riportella of Egg Harbor Township, sitting in a wheelchair, wept during yesterday’s hearing as she described how the fatal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease “has taken away my life and my independence.”

“It saddens and enrages me that I have to fight for the right to use and safely access the medicine that relieves my suffering,” she said.

Nancy Fedder of Hillsborough told the committee she has secretly acquired the drug to help her cope with severe leg and back pain caused by multiple sclerosis. She consumes only a modest amount through an inhaler, “without getting high, and without disrupting my work” as a database programmer.

Nearly a dozen law enforcement officers, school officials, family and anti-drug activists strongly urged the committee to postpone the vote to allow more time for people to digest the re-drawn legislation.

Barbara McCullough, a school counselor and member of the Association of Student Assistance Professionals-New Jersey, said the committee ought to be more concerned with how kids perceive this bill. “The message they are getting is that marijuana is already legal — that’s what the tell me,” she said.

After the vote, Mt. Olive Police Officer Joseph T. Abrusci, a member of a group of 300 law enforcement officers trained to detect drivers under the influence, said the bill still concerns him because it does not say physicians should recommend medical marijuana as a last resort when legal drugs have failed. He worries the roads will be more crowded with unfit drivers.

“There are a lot of loopholes,” Abrusci said.

The measure would require a licensed physician with whom the patient has an existing relationship to first recommend medical marijuana. The state Department of Health and Senior Services would then have to give its approval before the patient could obtain up to one ounce of marijuana per month. It also would require people approved for medical marijuana to personally get it from a producing center, or have a courier deliver it to them.

The panel’s vote on the revised bill was 7-1 vote with three abstentions. It now advances to the Assembly, and would then have to return to the Senate before it can be considered by Gov. Jon Corzine.

by Susan K. Livio. Source.

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