7/12/2011 – Commentary by Chris Goldstein – Governor Christie and the New Jersey Legislature often tout the state’s medical marijuana law as being the “most restrictive in the nation.” Sure, it is so strict that seriously ill or even terminal residents don’t get any marijuana at all.
Some of the blame falls right back on the Legislature. Elected officials spent five years debating a law that included provisions for home cultivation. That pragmatic language was cut at the last minute by the Assembly Health Committee. States like Vermont, Rhode Island, Washington and Maine have allowed small plots by patients and caregivers while dispensary regulations are worked out. Without these provisions New Jersey residents have been left without any legal access.
Yet the delays, legal wrangling and plain opposition to the compassionate use law from the Christie Administration have been among the most unsettling acts of politics in NJ. The issue cast a clear picture of the storm that has hit Trenton. Governor Christie cares to spend time on cancer patients and those living with AIDS only to keep them from consuming state-approved cannabis. Perhaps if every suffering patient were a millionaire living in a North Jersey suburb they would get better treatment.
Last year Gov. Christie requested a six-month to one-year delay in implementing the law. At the same time he suggested that Rutgers University should have a monopoly contract for growing and distributing the state regulated cannabis. Like all of the Gov’s other medical marijuana ideas the giant Crimson Knights Cannabis Farm was clearly designed to fail. Patients and advocates rallied against both concepts. But the legislature passed a 90-day delay. Christie has since extended this indefinitely.
The Legislature then passed concurrent resolutions stating that the Christie Administration’s proposed regulations for the program violate the intent of the law. Patients were forced to re-testify again and again before committees in Trenton. But elected officials have not taken the final steps to remove those maliciously constructed rules.
At the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey we hear directly from NJ patients on the phone, via email and through social media.
Given false hopes and hollow assurances many patients have already given up on the program. Some are planning to move to states like Maine, Colorado or Rhode Island. Others hit the streets to pay exorbitant prices for medical grade cannabis.
And qualifying patients do get arrested. We saw the state vigorously prosecute John Ray Wilson, a man without health benefits trying to treat Multiple Sclerosis by growing seventeen marijuana plants. Wilson got a five-year prison sentence. Another qualifying patient, David Barnes, chased down Gov. Christie at several Town Hall Meetings. Christie told Barnes that he would have a state issued ID card for medical marijuana; twice …back in 2010.
But not every ill patient can corner the governor for a bold-faced lie in front of TV cameras. At this time, not a single ID card has been issued.
Then there are the strictly law abiding citizens, some of them dying from their conditions. Although their physicians recommend cannabis and they know it could help relieve their suffering, they wait for fully legal access. Thousands of qualifying terminally ill residents have passed away already, waiting in vain.
Unfortunately the compassionate use program was not immune from Jersey-style politics from both parties. Six medical marijuana Alternative Treatment Centers (ATC) have been approved by the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS). Three ATCs have close ties back to none other than Gov. Christie. Another ATC has Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, a powerful Democrat, as the leader of the Medical Advisory board. Adding to the intrigue, the two physicians at DHSS who had seen through the regulations for the cannabis program, Dr. Poonam Alaigh and Dr. Susan Walsh, abruptly resigned just days after the ATC applications were approved.
The Gov’s new spin is that he wants legally unrealistic assurances from the federal government. Because he is a former US Attorney, Christie is a qualified expert at playing both sides of the legal fence on this issue. The real question is to why he would waste so much time and energy fighting the state law.
Christie has also been trying to carefully groom his national image as being brutally honest. But this has not been the case for medical marijuana. The governor has refused to meet with patients or advocates and is now keeping the NJ program suspended by a personal whim. All of this has been done while Christie and his fellow NJ Republicans trash western states with blow-dried conservative rhetoric about medical cannabis.
It does not help that a myriad of state positions in New Jersey are now held by former criminal prosecutors. These are talented attorneys but they lack transparency and diplomatic ability. Dismissing the wisdom of the community and locking out advocates, the policy for cannabis (along with many other public health issues) is decided in the thick-walled vault of Christie’s office.
Medical marijuana isn’t the only policy that has been negatively affected by this approach to governance. But this may be the most heartbreaking.
Right now, hundreds more qualifying patients are lamenting our state government from their deathbeds in a haze of fully legal opiate drugs. The only way to end this impasse over medical marijuana is for Chris Christie to follow the state Constitution in the best spirit of American federalism and show some true, human compassion. It is also long overdue for the NJ Legislature to stand up to the bully governor to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents by aggressively moving every option to implement the law.
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Chris Goldstein is a respected marijuana reform advocate. As a writer and radio broadcaster he has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org