After saying last month that he wanted assurance from the U.S. Justice Department that it won't pursue criminal charges against state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs, he pivoted Tuesday, saying he was drawing upon his seven years of experience as New Jersey's U.S. attorney in anticipating that federal prosecutors have more important crimes to pursue.
"It is my belief, having held that job for seven years, that there's a lot of other things that will be more important as long as the dispensaries operate within the law," he said.
He never received blanket assurance from the Justice Department.
But in making his announcement, the governor said that allowing the program to move forward was "a risk I'm willing to take as governor."
The Republican governor also cited comments Barack Obama made in 2008, when he was a presidential candidate, in which he said he would not "use Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," preferring to focus instead on fighting violent crime and potential terrorism.
New Jersey legalized marijuana for patients with certain conditions last year as Gov. Jon Corzine was leaving office. But the law's implementation was delayed as the state labored over regulatory details.
Christie has said he supports the concept of medical marijuana for patients for some conditions but didn't think the law was tough enough and wouldn't have signed it into law.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana, with programs in various phases of development.
Christie's critics say he has used the regulatory process to change the law, even though it's considered among the most restrictive.
"We were left with very little instruction at the end about how to implement this law," Christie said. "I have been struggling, as has my administration, to find a way to accomplish what I've wanted to accomplish, which is to provide compassionate treatment to people who are suffering in a way that wouldn't expose them, the operators of our dispensaries or the employees of the state of New Jersey to criminal liability."
This year, six nonprofit groups were awarded licenses to grow and sell pot to patients with conditions such as terminal cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Some patients say the drug eases pain and nausea. But so far, none has been legally sold because the state has not created a registry of patients who can use the drug.
Some of the groups licensed to grow marijuana have said they realize they would be violating federal law and are willing to risk prosecution to launch their businesses. The organizations that are allowed to grow and sell marijuana to patients with certain medical conditions are not-for-profit but the size of the operations is unclear since they haven't been allowed to start dispensing the drug.
In two letters sent to the Justice Department this spring on behalf of the governor, New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow specifically asked whether state employees could be prosecuted.
The Justice Department responded to several states in a June 30 memo that reiterated what was in a 2009 memo - that local federal prosecutors should not focus investigative resources on patients and caregivers complying with state medical marijuana laws.
It noted the broad discretion U.S. attorneys have in their states, but did not give states cover from prosecution.
Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, has not commented on the memos, but a person familiar with Fishman's thinking has told The Associated Press that it was extremely unlikely he would prosecute state employees who are complying within the state's regulatory framework. The person spoke only on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk about the matter.
Advocates said they were relieved the drug would soon be available to sick and dying patients.
"We are absolutely thrilled that the governor has decided to move forward with the program and we hope that officials in other states who are contemplating options for their programs will follow New Jersey's lead," said Roseanne Scotti with the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that spearheaded the effort to pass the law.
The main Democratic sponsors of the bill, state Sen. Nicolas Scutari and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, said there was never any real fear that prosecutors would come after state regulators or patients.
"The Mets have a better chance of winning the World Series than a state public official being prosecuted by the feds," Gusciora said.