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New Jersey assembly approves medical marijuana

Monday, January 11, 2010 - 6:16pm

The New Jersey Assembly approved a measure on Monday that would make the state the first in the region and the 14th in the nation to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

The measure was to be voted on by the State Senate later in the afternoon, the final day of the legislative session. If passed, it would allow patients diagnosed with severe illnesses like cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis to have access to marijuana distributed through state-monitored dispensaries.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign it into law before leaving office next Tuesday. Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie, speaking at a press conference on Monday before the vote, reiterated his support for legalizing the medical use of marijuana as long as the final bill contained safeguards to ensure that it did not end up encouraging the recreational use of the drug.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton, said the New Jersey law would be the most restrictive in the nation because it would only permit doctors to prescribe it for a list of serious chronic illnesses. The legislation would also forbid patients from growing their own marijuana and using it in public, and it would regulate the drug under the strict conditions used to track the distribution of medically prescribed opiates like Oxycontin and morphine.

“I truly believe this will become a model for other states because it balances the compassionate use of medical marijuana while limiting the number of ailments that a physician can prescribe it for,” said Mr. Gusciora, who sponsored the bill.

Mr. Christie said he wanted to make sure that New Jersey did not follow the path of other states that have legalized the medical use of marijuana.

“I think we see all what’s happened in California,” Mr. Christie said. “It’s gotten completely out of control.”

Opponents of the New Jersey bill often use California’s experience as a cautionary tale, saying that medical marijuana is so loosely regulated there that the state has essentially decriminalized the drug. Under California law, residents can legally obtain marijuana to treat a list of maladies as common, and undefined, as anxiety or chronic pain.

The New Jersey Senate last year passed a less restrictive version of the proposal, which led opponents of medical marijuana to predict that it would pave the way for California-style “pot centers.” David Evans, executive director of the Drug Free School Coalition, said that such centers would make marijuana more readily available on the streets and lead to an increase use of drugs by teenagers.

But after conference hearings among legislative leaders, both chambers agreed on a more stringent bill.

As the legislators prepared to vote on the measure, more than a dozen chronically ill patients rallied at the State House to urge lawmakers to pass it.

One of them, Scott Ward, who said he suffered from multiple sclerosis, said he had been prescribed marijuana to alleviate leg cramps so severe that they often “feel like my muscles are tearing apart” and that leave him virtually unable to walk. Other prescription drugs either failed to ease the pain or left him so groggy he could do little more than sleep, Mr. Ward said. But when he followed his neurologist’s advice and treated his pain with marijuana, Mr. Ward said, the pain went away.

“I could do normal things like walk the dog,” said Mr. Ward, 26. “It made a huge difference in my life.”