NJ gov. makes deal on medical marijuana regulation

December 3, 2010 12:13:00 PM PST
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie struck a deal Friday to partially rewrite his administration's proposed medical marijuana regulations, which had advocates and some lawmakers ready to revolt.

Under the new plan, medical cannabis could be grown and distributed at more places than Christie originally wanted. It also would allow terminally ill patients easier access to the drug, but an unusual potency cap would remain.

Christie, a Republican, predicted his approach could become a model for other states.

"This agreement reflects a good-faith compromise between the administration and the primary sponsor of the legislation on the best way to move forward on a responsible, medically based program that will avoid the significant fraud and criminal diversion that other states have experienced," Christie said Friday.

But it's not clear whether his compromise with Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton, will be enough to short-circuit a legislative uprising.

Just before Christie took office in January, lawmakers passed a bill to make New Jersey the 14th state to legalize marijuana for patients with certain conditions. Patients say pot helps them by easing pain and suppressing nausea, among other benefits.

Christie said he was comfortable with the concept of medical marijuana, but he wanted stricter controls than what the law seemed to call for and what the other states have imposed.

The state Health and Senior Services Department's proposed regulations reflected his position.

While the law called for six centers to grow and distribute the pot, the initial regulations called for two to grow it and four to distribute it.

The regulations also did something no other state has done: cap the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychotropic chemical in marijuana that is more commonly known as THC, at 10 percent. Advocates consider that too weak and say drugs from illegal dealers can be twice as potent.

The regulations also called for all medical marijuana patients to show that they had exhausted conventional treatment options before getting legal access to pot. Lawmakers wanted that requirement for patients with treatable conditions like glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, but thought it was too restrictive for those with terminal illnesses.

In his deal with Gusciora, Christie kept the potency cap but allowed the number of treatment centers that legislators called for, and dropped the requirement that patients will terminal conditions exhaust other treatment options. Friday's deal also eliminates a regulation that advocates liked - allowing home delivery.

"I think it's the least the governor's office could do, to follow the law the way it's written," said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat from Linden and a sponsor of medical marijuana regulation.

Scutari said he would need time to decide whether to move ahead with a vote scheduled for Dec. 13 that would invalidate the proposed regulations. Last month, the Assembly passed a similar resolution.

Gusciora said it's better for lawmakers to halt that effort, though.

"We can go to the Senate and declare the regulations null and void, but that would probably end the program," he said, because it could take years to hammer out new regulations. "Let's just get the program started. Down the road with studies and further advocacy, the department can always revise the regulations."

The activists who spent years pushing to allow medical marijuana aren't sure how they will respond to Friday's compromise, which caught them by surprise.

Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of Drug Policy Alliance, said that on balance the compromise might mean less access for patients who could be helped by pot.

Chris Goldstein, spokesman for the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said the potency cap could undermine the program entirely, because the law also caps the amount of marijuana patients could have per month.

"Doctors need to know that medical marijuana is going to be effective for their patients," he said. "Are they going to be recommending marijuana and essentially saying, 'You're going to have to find it on the underground market?"'

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Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield.


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