COMMENTARY from Chris Goldstein 1/15/2012 – It has been two years since the compassionate use law passed in New Jersey. There was some hope in Trenton that day. But now there have only been delays, basement hearings and promises broken. Not a single sprout of legal marijuana yet.
Terminal patients we work with die off while chronic patients constantly scour the underground market for medical-quality cannabis. Sadly, these patients who risk arrest every day can only expect to have better choices on the streets even if the state-authorized Alternative Treatment Centers (ATCs) eventually open their doors.
Governor Chris Christie and his administration have attempted to experiment with every aspect of the medical marijuana program. Politicians, bureaucrats and businesspeople (in typical Jersey style) have over-indulged the Executive Branch. A pot monopoly for Rutgers; calling in the Feds; the granite wall of regulatory authority – We’ve seen it all. The end result is a failure to fully implement the law.
Among advocates there is talk of some options to truly jump-start the program for patients. In a more perfect Garden State here’s how the Governor, the Legislature and the respective state agencies could work towards a law that seriously ill residents still desperately need.
Stop the doctor registry and start the Patient Registry
Part of the regulations issued by the NJ Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) require the nation’s first registry for physicians. Only these listed docs are allowed by the state to recommend medical marijuana. Doctors, nurses, medical professionals and patients testified many times in Trenton last year as to the problems with this structure. No similar requirement is mandated for drugs like morphine. Opened in October 2010 just 109 doctors have signed up out of almost 30,000 that practice in New Jersey.
But the patient registry was never opened. This means that seriously ill individuals have no legal protections related to marijuana. Unfortunately residents with qualifying medical conditions are still part of the more than 26,000 marijuana arrests in NJ each year.
The regulations currently require that patients have a registered physician and choose one of the six ATCs to even apply for the patient registry card. But the doctor registry list is not being made public by DHSS and none of the ATCs have opened. This leaves patients with no options. The unique and problematic physician registry could be discontinued or suspended in favor of a streamlined process for DHSS to begin issuing the patient registry cards. Patients could then be offered the legal protections that the state has long promised. The changes required are procedural language changes within the regulations. The logistics of actually issuing the cards to patients is relatively easy.
In other words: Can we stop treating medical pot as if it were highly addictive, radioactive machine gun bullets?
Grant Patients Immunity
If they could have the registry cards then patients could be offered immediate immunity from arrest and prosecution for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana. (Two ounces is the monthly supply allowed under the law – the lowest in the nation.) The current regulations only protect a registered NJ patient if their marijuana product was purchased at an authorized ATC. But the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act already includes guidelines for appropriate possession and use. This could be generally applied to any marijuana, especially during this extended time that the ATCs have not been able to open. Such immunity would free the police, courts, doctors, patients and their families from having to continue dealing with an expensive and senseless criminality. Again this would only take a few changes to the regulations. This legal protection for seriously ill residents was the core intent of the compassionate use law.
In other words: Can we please finally just follow one simple rule – stop putting handcuffs on sick and dying people for having a few joints?
Allow home cultivation
New Jersey passed the first compassionate use law in the country that did not include provisions for patients or their caregivers to grow cannabis. Language to allow micro-plots of up to 6 plants was stripped away from the legislation at the last minute by the Assembly Health Committee. The vision for the program was that seriously ill residents would rely on the regional Alternative Treatment Centers for all of their marijuana. But NJDHSS and the six hand-picked ATC operators have struggled to open leaving NJ patients with no marijuana at all. The regulations from the Christie Administration further restricted the choices patients would have in their therapy. The far-reaching rules limit THC to just 10%, exclude edible preparations other than lozenges and limit each ATC to growing just three strains of cannabis.
Americans enjoy an array of consumer choices in their medical care, from their professionals to their products. But qualifying NJ residents do not currently have any cannabis, let alone a variety. Patients should have access to the strengths, strains and delivery methods that provide the best relief. Amending the NJ compassionate use law to include the original language allowing patients and caregivers to cultivate small plots of cannabis would lift the immediate barrier on patient access. It would also give patients and doctors greater security in knowing that cannabis therapy will be tailored for specific patient needs.
In other words: The freaking US Department of Justice –THE Feds – even have a more lenient policy on individual patients growing their own compared to NJ…wtf??
Educate doctors, patients and medical professionals
New drugs and medical therapies are often marketed by for-profit companies. There are TV ads, billboards and suit-clad representatives visiting doctors’ offices with free pens and notepads. Think about the approach taken for profit-pills like Viagra. But medical marijuana in New Jersey (as it is in many states) is a not-for-profit enterprise and does not have a slick general marketing campaign. Although the six NJ Alternative Treatment Centers have tens-of-millions of dollars in start-up capital they have not planned to use any of it on public or professional awareness at this time.
The NJDHSS, Board of Medical Examiners, NJ Medical Society, State Nurses Association and other groups could fill in this information vacuum. These groups could hold seminars, compile relevant cannabis information into a statewide public journal and publish education materials. This would help residents, towns and medical professionals benefit from the medical cannabis program.
In other words: How hard would it be to go out there and talk about all of the amazing clinical research on cannabis and cannabinoids? Speaking from some experience, it might even be a little fun…
Advocate to local townships and municipalities
Politicians and state agencies could easily educate townships as to the benefits and details of the Medicinal Marijuana Program. Presentations or panels could be run during events like the League of Municipalities conference. Awareness events like Town Hall Meetings on the topic could be run by the Governor, DHSS or supporting elected officials. They could invite some of the dozens of qualifying residents, hospice nurses, doctors or other advocates who testified with solid information on the topic to speak with them or address questions.
Eighty-six percent of NJ residents support the medical marijuana law – this is the greatest level of support for any legislation in NJ. But there is a lack of information about the nuts-and-bolts of how the law is supposed to work or who it serves. Just like any other new program, the medical marijuana issue deserves the full effort of the state. Towns and municipalities deserve the tools to make effective decisions about the ATCs and their local patient population. Local governments have a special responsibility for this program, as these ATCs must serve an entire region of patients from their local base of operations.
In other words: At our Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey information booth at the NJ League of Municipalities Conference the most common question we get about medical marijuana (we clock hundreds of these per day; no kidding) “Do you have any free samples?”
There really is only one way forward for New Jersey’s program: Governor Christie and the new state MMP director John O’Brien need to meet with qualifying medical marijuana patients. Listening to them, face to face, about what they need for the law to work is the best path to success.
Chris Goldstein is on the Board of Directors at The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey and NORML- NJ. As a writer and radio broadcaster he has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org
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