By Phillip Smith
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced today that he will allow the Garden State's medical marijuana program to go into effect, despite his concerns about federal prosecutors going after state workers involved in implementing the program. Christie's decision should bring an end to nearly 18 months of delayed implementation of the program, which was signed into law by his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine (D).
State officials will "begin work immediately" to get six Alternative Treatment Centers (ATCs) up and running by year's end, Christie said at a Trenton press conference. "We're moving forward with the program as it was set up," he said. "The need provide compassionate pain relief to these citizens of our state outweighs the risk we are taking in moving forward with the program."
Christie had been accused of foot-dragging by legislators and medical marijuana supporters, who have waited with decreasing patience as the months rolled by without the program actually getting underway. First, state officials took months laboring over how to regulate the program, then Christie halted implementation of the program, saying he sought clarification from federal prosecutors on whether state officials could move ahead without fear of federal prosecution.
Christie's concerns were not unwarranted. Federal prosecutors in a number of states with or considering medical marijuana distribution systems have this year sent threat letters to state officials warning that any distribution of medical marijuana remained a crime under federal law and that anyone involved in it–including state officials–could be subject to prosecution. Those letters were followed late last month by a Justice Department memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole that seemed to indicate a tougher line from the Obama administration, whose previous position had been that medical marijuana suppliers acting in accordance with state laws were not suitable targets for federal prosecutors. But that letter didn't mention state officials.
Christie received no reassurances, but decided to move forward anyway. "After reading both the letter from Deputy Attorney General Cole and also reading remarks from then-candidate Barack Obama, and most importantly, the way we've set up the program, I have decided to move forward as expeditiously as possible to implement the medical marijuana program in New Jersey as outlined," he vowed.
The New Jersey medical marijuana program will allow patients suffering from specified illnesses or conditions to use marijuana with the approval of a physician. The law will create a registry of patients and a system of six ATCs scattered across the state. It will be administered by the state Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS).Advocates have criticized some of the program's regulations as overly restrictive, and Christie's announcement today doesnt change that.
Still, Christie's announcement was greeted with relief from medical marijuana patients and advocates, who called on officials in other states to follow his lead. Since federal prosecutors started sending out the threat letters earlier this year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) gutted a bill passed by the legislature that would have set up a state-licensed distribution system, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) delayed implementing her state's program, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) has put his state's program on hold.
"If Gov. Christie can implement his state's medical marijuana program in the face of recent attempts by the federal government to intimidate public officials, then states like Arizona, Rhode Island and Washington should be empowered to implement theirs as well," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group. "Gov. Christie's decision to move ahead with New Jersey's medical marijuana program should be a clarion call to other public officials like Gov. Brewer that the health and welfare of their people are paramount," Sherer added.
"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, who lobbied the legislature for years on the issue as state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Gov. Christie’s thoughtful analysis regarding state medical marijuana programs shows that states can and should move forward with well-regulated and responsible programs," she added.
Registered Nurse Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana–New Jersey, was less concerned with what other states will do than with getting the program going, despite what he and other advocates see as some of its overly restrictive aspects.
"We are happy that the governor is moving forward with the medicinal marijuana program," Wolski said Monday evening. "Patients have suffered too long waiting for this. In thousands of cases patients in NJ have already died without the improvement in quality of life and relief of suffering that marijuana can bring," he noted.
"We still have a number of concerns about the regulations put out by the DHSS for this program," Wolski continued. "The physician registry is unnecessary and will disqualify numerous patients. Plus the cap on THC level is arbitrary. Home delivery is not being permitted which is just another roadblock to patient access by the Christie administration."
Still, the bottom line for medical marijuana programs is getting the medicine to seriously ill patients who need it, patients like New Jersey multiple sclerosis sufferer Elise Segal. She was a happy camper today.
"I am extremely pleased that the governor decided to move forward with the program," Segal said. "I have nothing but feelings of gratitude toward him and his administration. I hope the program can get up and running now as soon as possible, so that people like me who are suffering will soon have relief."
It now looks like Segal will get her wish before year's end.