New Jersey Lawmakers Pass Medical Marijuana Bill

David Kocieniewski

TRENTON — The New Jersey Legislature approved a measure on Monday that would make the state the 14th in the nation, but one of the few on the East Coast, to legalize the use of marijuana to help patients with chronic illnesses.

The measure — which would allow patients diagnosed with severe illnesses like cancer, AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis to have access to marijuana grown and distributed through state-monitored dispensaries — was passed by the General Assembly and State Senate on the final day of the legislative session.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign it into law before leaving office next Tuesday. Supporters said that within nine months, patients with a prescription for marijuana from their doctors should be able to obtain it at one of six locations.

“It’s nice to finally see a day when democracy helps heal people,” said Charles Kwiatkowski, 38, one of dozens of patients who rallied at the State House before the vote and broke into applause when the lawmakers approved the measure.

Mr. Kwiatkowski, of Hazlet, N.J., who has multiple sclerosis, said his doctors have recommended marijuana to treat neuralgia, which causes him to lose the feeling and the use of his right arm and shoulders. “The M.S. Society has shown that this drug will help slow the progression of my disease. Why would I want to use anything else?”

The bill’s approval, which comes after years of lobbying by patients’ rights groups and advocates of less restrictive drug laws, was nearly derailed at the 11th hour as some Democratic lawmakers wavered and Governor-elect Christopher J. Christie, a Republican, went to the State House and expressed reservations about it.

In the end, however, it passed by comfortable margins in both houses: 48-14 in the General Assembly and 25-13 in the State Senate.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton who sponsored the legislation, said New Jersey’s would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the nation because it would permit doctors to prescribe it for only a set list of serious, chronic illnesses. The law would also forbid patients from growing their own marijuana and from using it in public, and it would regulate the drug under the strict conditions used to track the distribution of medically prescribed opiates like Oxycontin and morphine. Patients would be limited to two ounces of marijuana per month.

“I truly believe this will become a model for other states because it balances the compassionate use of medical marijuana while limiting the number of ailments that a physician can prescribe it for,” Mr. Gusciora said.

Under the bill, the state would help set the cost of the marijuana. The measure does not require insurance companies to pay for it.

Some educators and law enforcement advocates worked doggedly against the proposal, saying the law would make marijuana more readily available and more likely to be abused, and that it would lead to increased drug use by teenagers.

Opponents often pointed to California’s experience as a cautionary tale, saying that medical marijuana is so loosely regulated there that its use has essentially been decriminalized. Under California law, residents can obtain legal marijuana for a list of maladies as common, and as vaguely defined, as anxiety or chronic pain.

David G. Evans, executive director of the Drug-Free Schools Coalition, warned that the establishment of for-profit dispensaries would lead to abuses of the law. “There are going to be pot centers coming to neighborhoods where people live and are trying to raise their families,” Mr. Evans said.

Keiko Warner, a school counselor in Millville, N. J., cautioned that students already faced intense peer pressure to experiment with marijuana, and that the use of medical marijuana would only increase the likelihood that teenagers would experiment with the drug.

“There are children at age 15, 14 who are using drugs or thinking about using drugs,” she said. “And this is not going to help.”

Legislators attempted to ease those fears in the past year by working with the Department of Health and Senior Services to add restrictions to the bill.

But with Democrats in retreat after Mr. Corzine’s defeat by Mr. Christie, some supporters feared that the Democratic-controlled Legislature — which last week failed to muster the votes to pass a gay marriage bill — would balk at approving medical marijuana.

Mr. Christie added to the suspense Monday, just hours before lawmakers were scheduled to vote, when he was asked about the bill during a press conference within shouting distance of the legislative chambers. He said he was concerned that the bill contained loopholes that might encourage recreational drug use.

“I think we all see what’s happened in California,” Mr. Christie said. “It’s gotten completely out of control.”

But the loophole Mr. Christie cited — a list of ailments so unrestricted that it might have allowed patients to seek marijuana to treat minor or nonexistent ailments — had already been closed by legislators. In the end, the bill received Republican as well as Democratic support.

“This bill will help relieve people’s pain,” said Senator William Baroni, a Republican.

Supporters celebrated with hugs and tears.

Scott Ward, 26, who said he suffered from multiple sclerosis, said he had been prescribed marijuana to alleviate leg cramps so severe that they often felt “like my muscles are tearing apart.” “Now,” he said, “I can do normal things like take a walk and walk the dog.”