New Jersey would become the 14th state with a medical marijuana law on its books.
Those who favor the bill, including its Senate sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari of Linden, said the "Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act" would allow a "new route of treatment" for patients with AIDS, cancer, MS, and other serious illnesses for whom other drugs fail.
"Society is able to distinguish between the lawful use of a substance" and recreational use or drug abuse," said Scutari, a Democrat.
The measure allows chronically ill patients to petition Human Services to allow them to use marijuana medicinally. Physician certification of their condition would be required.
If approved, the patient would be issued an identification card allowing them to grow six marijuana plants or access the drug at an alternative medicine center without fear of being arrested or prosecuted.
Responding to critics who say medicinal marijuana amounts to tacit approval of an illegal drug, Scutari said safeguards have been built in to the proposal.
Patients would not be able to smoke and drive, for example, and would be barred from smoking in public places. They'd be permitted to possess only a small amount of the drug, he said.
"This is not legalizing marijuana for recreational use," he said.
Opponents argued that allowing patients to smoke marijuana is akin to approving drug use.
They said the pill Marinol, made from a synthetic form of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, has FDA approval and is as effective as smoking the drug.
David Evans, executive director of the national Drug Free Schools Coalition, cited the lack of scientific studies on marijuana use.
"You have to make sure it is safe," he said. "There are no proper studies about dose, how many times do you take it. Once this bill is approved, you can smoke your head off all day long."
Patients, however, disagreed.
They said they didn't get high, but were able to function with the drug. Marinol did not work as well, if at all, they said.
Sen. Bill Baroni, a Hamilton Township Republican who voted for the bill, said he spent the weekend reading literature on both sides of the argument.
"The people who are asking us to do this today, these are people who can't play piggyback with their 3-year-old. These are people who get up every day and battle HIV/AIDS. They are people who wonder if their chemotherapy is going to work," said Baroni. "I can't look at those folks and let them be perhaps the only ones who don't have the ability to have less pain."
A hearing two years ago brought celebrity Montel Williams to the New Jersey Statehouse. A longtime multiple sclerosis sufferer, Williams said he uses marijuana regularly.
The bill next heads to the full Senate for possible consideration. The Assembly held an informational hearing on the proposal last year, but has not scheduled it for a hearing. Similar proposals did not advance during the prior legislative session.
Most of the other states that began allowing medical marijuana have done so through ballot referendums. In New Jersey, the law must be changed by the Legislature.
States where medical marijuana is legal are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.