Pubdate: Mon, 25 Mar 2013
Source: Daily Record, The (Parsippany, NJ)
Copyright: 2013 The Daily Record
Author: Bob Ingle


TRENTON - When it was passed by the Legislature and signed into law 
it was called the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. 
Three years later it's hard to find the compassion.

The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey brought its appeal to 
media at the Statehouse, where activist/patient Jay Lassiter spoke 
the obvious: "New Jersey's medical marijuana program is not where it 
should be three years into its implementation."

He called it "over-regulated, over-taxed and inaccessible" for 
patients in the lower two-thirds of the state. This might be just 
another story in government incompetence except for the people in 
need. In many cases they are terminally ill.

Vanessa Waltz of Princeton was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in 
her mid-30s. Her chemotherapy treatment was especially hard. "During 
chemo I thought many times about quitting treatment, and I thought I 
would rather die than continue. But marijuana gave me hope. It made 
my crippling headaches disappear, stopped me from throwing up all the 
pills I had to take and helped me realize that I could get through this."

Since the one dispensary currently operational in New Jersey is in 
Montclair, she said, patients have been told the wait is seven 
months. "You know who can't wait seven months? People with six months 
to live." On Thursday, operators of Greenleaf Compassion Center in 
Montclair had more bad news. The only new patients accepted will be 
from North Jersey, the area for which it is licensed, according to 
published reports.

Long waits can turn patients, family or care-givers into criminals. 
With no other options, Waltz turned to the streets for pot. When you 
do that not only are you breaking the law, but you have to deal with 
some scary people and pay a premium and maybe be ripped off.

The medical marijuana bill was signed into law by former Gov. Jon 
Corzine. When Chris Christie came in, he wanted to make sure that 
there was not widespread abuse as there had been in California. No 
one would argue with that goal, the concern is over how long it is taking.

Doctors have to be part of a physician registry before they can 
prescribe medical pot. To get on it they have to take a special 
course in addiction medicine. Waltz lifted two gallon-size freezer 
bags that contained medicine she had been prescribed. "I would be 
here all day if I told you all the side effects in these bags, but I 
will list the biggies - seizure, stroke, heart attack, coma, death, 
not to mention physical dependency and addiction. There's morphine in 
there. But doctors need a special additional medicine course for 
medical marijuana? That's absurd."

The doctors on the registry, about 200 out of the 30,000 doctors in 
the state, don't want people who are not their patients coming to 
them just to get the marijuana card diagnosis, but it is easy to find 
them, as the registry is public. So far more than 700 people have 
been registered for the program and about 75 percent of them are 
waiting to make a purchase.

When a patient clears those hurdles, there are still bumps in the 
road including financial ones. Lassiter's first doctor's office visit 
cost more than $200 and the diagnosis was good for 90 days. Because 
of the backup, it expired before he could get to the center in 
Montclair, so he had to go back to the physician. The final doctor's 
cost was $400. The card itself cost $200, payable to the state and 
good for two years. An ounce of marijuana cost him $527 with the $27 
being sales tax to the state. He paid it out of pocket.

An advocacy group called NORML has petitioned the court in an attempt 
to speed things up. "It is charging the Department of Health with 
tort misconduct," said Lassiter, "because the department is stalling, 
trying to rewrite the laws through regulation, which is a violation 
of separation of powers. The executive branch just can't ignore 
stuff. If we win, the court would demand prompt approval of the five 
remaining distribution sites. Basically, the court would say obey the law."

Legal briefs are due in May, arguments in June. Lassiter and many 
others in this battle hope the issue will become part of the 
governor's race so that it gets a lot of attention.

The politics of it, like everything else in New Jersey, is full of 
speculation and conspiracy theory. Some think Christie is not happy 
the Legislature passed it and Corzine signed it on the way out of the 
building, leaving Christie the headaches and critics. Others believe 
the governor has an eye on a 2016 run for the White House and is 
afraid of the right wing of his party. There also is the influence of 
the pharmaceutical industry, which is powerful in New Jersey and 
might see medical marijuana as competition.

The Health Department defended the governor, saying his budget for 
the next fiscal year doubles the program's funding to $1.6 million 
and that five of the six nonprofit companies that have been 
preliminarily approved to open marijuana dispensaries have "secured 
locations." That sounds like a long way from operational. Local 
governments are stumbling blocks. The sick and dying are waiting.

So much for compassion.

Oops: In Friday's column the U.S. ambassador killed in Benghazi, 
Libya was misidentified. He was Chris Stevens.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom