COMPROMISE NEEDED ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA
THE LEGISLATURE recently invoked a rarely used constitutional power to require the Christie administration to go back to the drawing board to rewrite the rules governing the state's medical marijuana law. We are now on the verge of an unprecedented move to overturn the regulations, with agreement by both houses that the governor has overstepped his constitutional bounds.
As sponsor of the law, it was an extraordinarily difficult decision to move forward with this, as I knew it would further delay a program that has already been held up for far too long. But it was critical to ensuring that people with debilitating conditions and patients dying of cancer, HIV and AIDS receive proper care.
The Department of Health and Senior Services' guidelines sought to alter key areas of the law, limiting the number of growers and distributors and requiring that conventional methods of treatment be exhausted for every patient before they were prescribed the drug.
They limited marijuana to 10 percent THC, a product that would be half as potent as the marijuana sold on the street, and prevented the treatment of new conditions for at least two years.
This virtual overhaul of the law posed significant barriers to the program, setting up a scheme that would make it impossible for chronic and terminal patients to get relief. And the regulations flat-out ignored the Legislature's intent.
We challenged the rules with a formal resolution in both houses, and the governor decided to relent on the first two points. But the regulations - even as revised - still would not work.
Limiting marijuana to an arbitrary 10 percent THC all but ensures that some patients won't get adequate relief and others will get their medicine from the streets, where the THC level is upwards of 15 percent to 20 percent. Paired with the low cost of illegally sold marijuana, it is inevitable that patients will retreat to the black market.
This is unfortunate, and I know the governor would agree that we should do everything possible to keep chronic and terminal patients from resorting to such means for relief.
With regard to the marijuana product, the state rules would also impose a restriction on the number of strains to be sold and, by doing so, patients will be limited in their ability to find the most effective medicine for the treatment of their condition. This is a matter that must be addressed.
Further, the governor recently eliminated a critical part of the program, removing the home delivery system, which is the only way some of the sickest patients would be able to access the drug.
These are some of the problems I've identified with the regulations - but I've also spoken with patients, advocates and potential investors who have expressed concerns about other aspects of the program that are worthy of consideration before the final rules are approved.
The Board of Medical Examiners' regulations, for example, require doctors to counsel patients on the so-called addictive qualities of marijuana and to make an attempt every three months to wean them off the drug. No other drug - not morphine nor oxycodone, both with more severe side effects than marijuana - is treated this way.
Doctors should have the ability to prescribe marijuana and counsel patients as they see fit, just as they do other medications.
This counseling requirement is extremely burdensome and, quite frankly, interferes with patient-doctor relationships.
The additional obligation that doctors treating minors obtain confirmation from a pediatrician and from a psychiatrist - in addition to getting parental permission - that the child is likely to benefit from the medical use of marijuana is unconscionable.
Heaven forbid that a child has a terminal illness; ushering him around to additional doctors for unnecessary approvals will further erode his quality of life.
Some of the requirements for businesses also seem onerous, and run the risk of limiting interest in the program, which is good for no one - not the patients, nor the state.
There are other areas of the rules that I disagree with, but I am not looking for a political fight. My focus has always been solely on ensuring we have a functioning program that actually provides patients relief.
For an Effective Program
To that end, I believe an open and honest discussion about the real-life implications of the proposed regulations is in order, before we inadvertently adopt arbitrary rules that prevent any chance of implementing an effective program in New Jersey.
I am more than willing to work with the governor. I know we can find some middle ground, and come up with a model that addresses his concerns, but also one that is functional, so that patients who have waited out this already too lengthy process can finally get relief.
It is incumbent upon us to reach a true compromise, to ensure that our most vulnerable residents are afforded dignified care.