NJ medical marijuana advocates want regulations

August 21, 2010 1:43:31 PM PDT
New Jersey legalized medical marijuana eight months ago, but its advocates are finding that a law alone doesn't get the drug to patients.

About 70 activists - including potential patients, entrepreneurs who would like to sell pot, doctors who might prescribe it and lawyers - gathered Saturday in Trenton to try to hash out what they would like a distribution system to look like and consider how to get policymakers on their side.

"Passing a law is the easy part of what you have to do," said Stephanie Scherer, the director of the national medical marijuana patients group Americans for Safe Access. Some group members who attended the gathering wore suit coats and ties, while others donned Hawaiian shirts with prints of marijuana buds.

The advocates have several hopes for the regulations the state is devising. Among them: If the state seeks to set price controls, the advocates want the cannabis expensive enough that growers could afford to sell it but not too costly for patients, who say the drug can reduce pain and nausea and increase appetite.

Figuring out how to regulate medical marijuana has been a conundrum in the 14 states that have legalized it, largely because it's still illicit in the eyes of the federal government.

The businesses that sell the product are all technically running afoul of federal law - and so are their customers, even if their states allow it.

In New Jersey, allowing medical marijuana was one of the last acts of former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who signed a law that is the most restrictive among those adopted across the country. But he left many of the details to his successor, Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

While Christie supports the idea, he's been cautious about how to enact it.

In recent months, his administration looked into a novel plan that would have had the state's crop grown by Rutgers University and distributed by some of the state's hospitals. That idea was nixed, though, when Rutgers determined playing such a role would have been illegal.

Dawn Thomas, a state Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman, says it's working on establishing registry for patients and is meeting developing regulations. After getting an extension from the original deadline of July 1, the state has until October to publish the regulations.

The state law calls for six nonprofit alternative treatment centers around the state to grow and sell the marijuana initially, though for-profit businesses could later get licenses.

Activists also are encouraged that state officials have met with them in recent weeks after months of refusing to do so.

"We left the meeting confident that the Department of Health is trying to implement the law," said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey. He's hopeful patients will be able to legally buy marijuana by next March.

However, there are parts of the law that advocates already say need to be changed. They would like patients suffering from a wider variety of medical conditions - currently only six are recognized - to be eligible.

And they want registered patients to be allowed to grow their own pot.

Scherer said other states have been considering some features of the New Jersey law that trouble advocates, such as barring patients from growing their own stashes.