Legalization of Medical Marijuana in new Jersey

New Jersey may join a number of other states that have legalized marijuana for certain medical purposes. The “New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act” is being considered as Bill 119 in the Senate and Bill 804 in the General Assembly. If these bills are passed, patients with serious debilitating illnesses such as cancer, HIV and AIDS, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, persistent muscle spasms, and other conditions would be allowed to possess and use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms, with their doctors’ recommendations. The patients and caregivers would register with the Department of Health and Human Services and be given ID cards.

The medical marijuana bills were introduced on January 10, 2005 by Senator Nicholas Scutari and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, Governor John Corzine has supporting protecting medical marijuana patients and would sign this legislation. The General Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee held an informational meeting on the bill on May 22, 2008. This was the first committee hearing on legislation to legalize the medical use of marijuana in almost two years. The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee held a legislative hearing on December 15, 2008.

The Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, which kicked off their Compassionate Use Campaign in 2006 with polling that showed that 86% of New Jersey residents support allowing access to medical marijuana, has led the lobbying efforts. This campaign was the start of legislative hearings on a medical marijuana bill in New Jersey. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, this proposed legislation has gained the support of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the New Jersey League for Nursing, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s southern and northern New Jersey chapters, among many other organizations. The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, which is also leading the fight to get medical marijuana legalized, cites a 2008 position paper from the American College of Physicians entitled “Supporting Research into the Therapeutic Role of Marijuana” that endorses the medical use of marijuana.

According to the Stop the Drug War Organization, the main opposition to the proposed legislation in New Jersey has come from the Ocean County Deputy District Attorney and the executive director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition, who is also the spokesman for the New Jersey Narcotics Officers Association. The opposition argues that the bill allowing the medical use of marijuana is a way to open the door to general legalization of marijuana, and that the medical benefits of marijuana use have not been definitively proven. The Stop the Drug War Organization also identifies potential opposition from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has lobbied against medical marijuana legislation in the past.

As indicated by the Drug Policy Alliance, the recreational and medicinal use of cannabis in the United States was originally banned by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. But pressure to reverse this total ban has been building since the 1970’s based on various reports from independent, government-sponsored commissions that have documented the relative harmlessness of marijuana and evidence from scientific and medical communities of the drug’s therapeutic potential.

One of the contentious issues for the proposed legislation in New Jersey is how to control the distribution of marijuana. The amendment of the Opium Act in the Netherlands in 1976 to include marijuana as a “soft drug” led to the coffee shop system of publicly distributing marijuana. In California, where the Compassionate Use Act was passed in 1996, cannabis buyers’ clubs have emerged to provide marijuana for legitimate medical needs. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, lawmakers on the health panel considering the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act are uncomfortable passing the bill without also providing a way for patients to buy marijuana, indicating that a reliable source is needed.

Pharmacies in New Jersey could not sell marijuana as long as it remains illegal under federal law. Other states that have legalized the medical use of marijuana face similar problems. Oregon licenses grow centers that are authorized to harvest small amounts of marijuana for a prescribed number of patients. In Rhode Island a bill has been introduced to create compassionate care centers where marijuana could be used, and New Mexico is considering various options.