Friday, July 23, 2010

Christie’s making medical marijuana unworkable for New Jersey’s patients

The Christie administration is contemplating making the nation's most restrictive medical marijuana law even more restrictive. Lawmakers do so at the expense of patients' well being.

To review: in January, after years of debate, outgoing Democrat Governor Jon Corzine signed legislation making New Jersey the fourteenth state in the nation to allow for the state-authorized use of medical cannabis by qualified patients. The measure, known as The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, authorizes select patients with a physician's recommendation to possess and obtain medical cannabis from up to six state-authorized "alternative treatment centers." Unlike the laws in thirteen others states, state-qualified patients are not legally permitted to grow their own marijuana, nor are they allowed to legally consume marijuana to mitigate the symptoms of chronic painful conditions.

Yet these safeguards apparently provide little comfort to Gov. Chris Christie. Recently, the Governor has proposed amending state law so that patients would only be eligible to obtain medical cannabis in state hospitals. He has also proposed limiting the cultivation of marijuana to a single supply source at Rutgers University. Lawmakers ought oppose to these amendments, which are unnecessary and, if enacted, would make New Jersey's law totally unworkable for patients.

How so? Consider this: For over nine years the University of Massachusetts has sought — unsuccessfully — to cultivate marijuana for medical research purposes. The University even went so far as to file a legal challenge with the DEA — which it won — to gain permission to grow pot. Yet in 2009 the DEA's acting director overruled the determination of the agency's own administrative law judge in order to prohibit UMass from growing even a single marijuana plant — citing that allowing the University to do so would be in violation of international conventions. It is unlikely that a similar plan at Rutgers University would be met with any greater success.

Moreover, centralizing the supply of medical-grade cannabis severely limits patients' options. The efficacy of cannabis as a medicine is derived from its various active therapeutic components, known as cannabinoids. Different strains of marijuana vary in their therapeutic prowess based on their percentages of distinct cannabinoids. By limiting patients' legal access to only one or two specific varieties of cannabis, lawmakers are needlessly consolidating the total number of patients that may be helped under the law.

Finally, it is burdensome and unnecessary to limit patients' use of medical marijuana solely to hospitals. As stated in 1988 by no less than the DEA's own administrative law judge, "Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." The plant's compounds are virtually non-toxic to healthy cells and organs, do not depress the central nervous system, and are incapable of causing a fatal overdose.

In fact, a 2008 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association (CMAJ) reported that cannabis-based drugs were associated with virtually no elevated incidences of serious adverse side effects in over 30 years of investigative use. To place this finding in proper perspective, consider this: taking just a small amount of acetaminophen (Tylenol) over the recommended total daily dose has been conclusively shown to cause liver damage and death. It is arbitrary and unnecessary for the Governor to propose impose restrictions regarding the use of medical marijuana that are more stringent than the regulations already in place governing the distribution and use of other doctor recommended medications.

The bottom line is this. Seriously ill patients in New Jersey have already waited years for legislative relief and safe access to medical marijuana. Lawmakers should reject any further amendments or delays to the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Chelsea Green, 2009).

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