NJ Legislature seeks to loosen medical marijuana rules

TRENTON - A bid to force the Christie administration into rewriting proposed medical marijuana rules that patient advocates call too strict won support from state Senate and Assembly committees Monday.

The resolution, if passed by the full Legislature, would effectively veto draft rules released by the Department of Health and Senior Services last month. State officials would have 30 days to rewrite them.

In January, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize medical marijuana for patients suffering from a list of mostly chronic illnesses. But sponsors say the administration's plan to implement the program is more restrictive than called for in the law, which already was considered the most conservative in the country.

Top among their concerns is a reduction in the number of distribution centers statewide from six to four, and limits on the strength and number of strains of marijuana that can be sold.

The rules make it appear as if "the administration does not want this to be successful," said Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Union), a sponsor of the resolution approved by the committees Monday. Scutari worked on the original bill for five years.

Gov. Christie has said he would not have signed the medical marijuana bill if he had been governor when it passed. He believes the implementation rules create a program that provides the drug to those who need it and prevents it from being distributed to those who don't, spokesman Kevin Roberts said Monday.

Several patients who testified in support of the bill in January told the Senate health committee Monday that they were frustrated the medicine still was not available and concerned that their access would be limited.

Diane Rivera-Riportella, 54, told the Senate health committee that the optimism she felt in January has faded. The Egg Harbor Township resident has Lou Gehrig's disease and seeks pain relief through morphine, which takes 45 minutes to work and limits her ability to communicate.

Marijuana provides similar relief but is immediate, Rivera-Riportella said.

Plus, "I can express myself," she said, during tearful testimony. "I can be the person that I was."

At the urging of Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), Rivera-Riportella visited Christie's office to try to share her story with him directly, but the governor was unavailable.

State health department officials have spoken with patient advocates on the matter, Roberts said.

Jay Lassiter, 38, of Cherry Hill, urged legislators to straighten out the rules quickly. Lassiter has HIV and smokes marijuana to relieve side effects from the bag full of medications he takes weekly to keep the virus in check.

"I was a criminal yesterday and as long as this is in limbo, that's just a choice I have to make," he said.

The rules limit the marijuana that can be sold in the state to three strains, none with more than 10 percent of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, which is primarily responsible for marijuana's psychoactive effects.

No other state puts a cap on THC content or has a distribution system as centralized as the one proposed in New Jersey.

Candice Singer, of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, spoke against the resolution, saying it is important for the program to have strict limits.

Most medications are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but marijuana is not. "We're left to provide those restrictions," she said.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the rules appear crafted to provide "the least amount of relief to the fewest number of people."

She said she was shocked by a stipulation that prohibits distribution centers, which would have strict security, from being located within 1,000 feet of a school.

That would rule out clinics in most urban areas, limit access to underserved communities and open the state to potential lawsuits, she said.

Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex) voted against the medical marijuana bill in January, but he voted for the resolution.

The Legislature sent the administration a clear message about the kind of program to be created and the rules should reflect that, he said.

The resolution passed in the Senate health committee by a 6-1 vote. The Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee approved it 5-0. Scutari said he would be willing to withdraw the resolution if the administration compromised on key issues.


Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.