Saturday, May 23, 2015

Why N.J.'s medical marijuana program has gone to pot

Medical marijuana grows at Compassionate Care Foundation, Egg Harbor Township, April 28, 2014.  ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Medical marijuana grows at Compassionate Care Foundation, Egg Harbor Township, April 28, 2014. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )

OPINION:

Governor Chris Christie says that New Jersey has a “medically” based marijuana program that is apparently just a front for Uruguay-style legalization. But once again the Garden State Gov. is playing spin doctor with the issue and the needs of his seriously ill residents.

In 2010 and 2011, Christie organized a severe over-regulation of the compassionate-use law and delayed the implementation by years. A major player in the marijuana regulation and delay process was his Chief Counsel Kevin O'Dowd, who was just nominated to State Attorney General.

O'Dowd's wife, Mary, has been the Department of Health Commissioner since 2011. DOH controls the medicinal marijuana program.

In 2012, Christie personally insisted on a special tax for medical cannabis, jacking up the price to patients. Every other over-the-counter drug in NJ gets to consumers tax-free.

New Jersey is home to 22 of the 25 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. They are a powerful lobby in Trenton. Medicine is certainly a for-profit business. Christie put his own political allies in Big Pharm in charge of all six medical marijuana dispensaries. 

David Knowlton, a onetime acting commissioner of the state Health Department, is now in charge of the Egg Harbor facility following the resignation of the original CEO.

Former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's brother, Webster Todd, owns another NJ dispensary.

Kevin Barry, who ran the closure of UMDNJ for Christie (and is from Christie's hometown of Mendham), helps to run the Woodbridge medical marijuana center.

While many in the press have focused on lane closures in Fort Lee, perhaps the most egregious obfuscation of state law comes in Christie's machinations over the medicinal marijuana program. He has gone outside his authority repeatedly to stunt its progress.

It is part of the governor’s personal politics and a favor to Big Pharma. Both see natural, whole-plant cannabis as a threat to profits.

New Jersey has been left with a politically based cannabis system where only Christie loyalists are allowed to participate, not severely ill patients.

Most residents who would qualify, even under the "restrictive" law, have been left to the underground cannabis market. That's exactly the scenario the law sought to prevent. Christie has thus carefully deconstructed the legislative intent.

Demand for medical marijuana is higher than ever but participation in the program is minimal. Those with qualifying conditions (and many others like PTSD that would not qualify) are too smart to get involved; or they are too sick to jump through the many hoops. Some are just too poor to buy the marijuana, which costs $500 to $600 per ounce, from Christie's friends.

The news last week was that the CEO of the Egg Harbor dispensary, the not-so aptly named Compassionate Care Foundation, quit. Bill Thomas who has a day-job in big, mainstream pharmaceuticals and hospitals was frustrated by the lack of paying patients.

The same facility that now claims to be bereft of clients received a much-touted $357,000 loan from the NJ Economic Development Authority. They got the cash earlier this year to "expand."

NJEDA is run by a close Christie confidant, his former political strategist Michele Brown. This leaves some serious questions: 1) Where did the money go? 2) Where is all the marijuana they are growing if no patients are buying? 3) If medical marijuana is a front for legalization as Christie claims, why did Brown's agency fast-track the state loan to a dispensary run by Thomas and Knowlton?

It is long past the time for the NJ legislature to stand up for the compassionate-use law it passed and the patients it was meant to serve. Moreover, it is time for Gov. Christie and his administration to be held accountable for their calculated use of authority to destroy a law they were tasked with putting into practice. Welcome to MarijuanaGate.

The good news is that lawmakers in Harrisburg have seen the failure across the river and are following a different path. During Pennsylvania Senate Law and Justice Committee hearings last week State Sen. Mike Folmer, a conservative Republican, said, "We don't want [a medical marijuana law] so restrictive that no one can get it; like New Jersey. "

Folmer and Sate Sen. Daylin Leach are committed to a medical cannabis program that includes more qualifying conditions, greater access, and a wide variety of oils as well as whole-plant marijuana. The bill they are sponsoring, SB1182 The Governor Raymond P. Shafer Compassionate Use Act, also includes provisions for reciprocity: this means card-carrying medical marijuana patients from other states could access Pennsylvania's program.  

What a great irony it would be for New Jersey's patients to eventually find better medicine in the Keystone State.

 Chris Goldstein served on the Board of Directors at the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ) and Executive Director at NORML-NJ. He is currently co-chair of PhillyNORML and is serving two years of federal probation for possessing a single marijuana joint. 

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