Medical marijuana act passes NJ panel


TRENTON – New Jersey took a major step toward becoming the latest state to allow certain patients to use marijuana Monday, when the Senate’s Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved the Compassionate Use Medicinal Marijuana Act by a vote of 6-1.

Elise Segal, who testified in support of the legislation, said the committee’s vote “really brings me to tears, not just for me as a someone suffering from multiple sclerosis, but as a registered nurse and for all the people that I’ve treated.”

The Department of Health and Senior Services would register people with debilitating medical conditions, which would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, or other diseases that cause wasting, chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms. The department then would issue a photo identity card and allow those registered to possess as many as “six marijuana plants and an ounce of usable marijuana,” according to the bill.

As a result, the person would not be subject to arrest or penalty for the use of marijuana. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I, the most restrictive class of drugs.

The federal prohibitions will remain, but the bill’s supporters said the overwhelming number of prosecutions are under state law, so it would lift most of the prohibitions.

The bill still bars people from operating a car, boat or airplane under the influence of marijuana. It also bans people from smoking marijuana on a school bus, public property or beach, or in a correctional institute or park.

The bill would also apply to patients younger than 18, but it requires a parent or guardian’s informed approval.

A late amendment would also allow people to start Medicinal Marijuana Alternate Treatment Centers, which would dispense regulated marijuana.

The measure was first proposed in 2005, but Monday marked the first time a bill has cleared a state legislative committee. Thirteen other states have approved similar measures.

Testimony was a tug-of-war between advocates who testified how smoking marijuana can relieve pain and suffering and opponents who said the drug is dangerously untested and its partial legalization would increase crime and drug addiction.

Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic – who cosponsored the bill with Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, Somerset, Middlesex – said, “I think the consequences of not acting is far worse with all of the pain and suffering we have heard about here today.”

Similarly, Sen. Bill Baroni, R-Middlesex, Mercer, the only Republican to vote in support, said after a weekend of consideration, “There is too much pain, too much hurt, too much suffering, and we can do something about it.”

The hearing included Brent Zettl, president of Prairie Plant Systems Inc., of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who testified via video on the process the company uses to produce sterilized medicinal marijuana. He said a challenge in court essentially pushed the company into business, but now it covers 30 percent of the Canadian market.

Segal was also one of several patients who told senators how marijuana helps them in their fight against illness.

“I am able to relieve my multiple sclerosis symptoms, but I run the risk of being a criminal,” Segal said. “You have the power to relieve my suffering.”

Other New Jersey groups in support of the bill included the Academy of Family Physicians, League for Nursing, local chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Opponents of the measure questioned why people would be allowed to grow so many plants, how effective any smoked drug could be, and said there is too much uncertainty without FDA approval.

Joyce Nalepka, president of Drug-Free Kids: America’s Challenge, said medicinal marijuana sends the message to children that harmful drugs are legal. She also said drug abuse has risen in states where marijuana is legal for medicinal purposes.

The committee approved the bill 6-1 with two abstentions. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote as early as January. A companion measure was introduced to the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee in January.