TRENTON - Patients could more easily qualify for medical marijuana and buy the drug from a larger number of distribution centers under a deal announced Friday by Gov. Christie, whose administration has fielded criticism for drafting rules considered too restrictive.
But the compromise in New Jersey's medical marijuana program - signed into law in January and expected to be operating by next summer - failed to address a number of patient advocates' concerns. It also was reached without Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), chief sponsor of a resolution directing the Christie administration to rewrite the rules.
That resolution passed the lower house on Nov. 22, but its main sponsor there, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), said at a news conference with Christie politics had been pushed aside "to focus on the truly important matter at hand, and that's the patient's need."
After calling for just two growers and four treatment centers, Christie said Friday he supported allowing six centers to grow and distribute the drug.
In another compromise, the governor also said the regulations would no longer require doctors who recommend marijuana for patients to certify that all conventional treatments had failed. The law had required that provision only for several conditions, such as glaucoma.
Patient advocates and some lawmakers have accused the Department of Health and Senior Services of proposing regulations more conservative than the law, which made New Jersey the 14th state in the nation to allow medical marijuana. The Christie administration has said it wants to restrict abuses of the law.
Gusciora, an architect of the legislation, voiced a commitment to monitoring the implementation of the program and making changes later if needed, but said the process would drag out even further without compromises.
"While I hear the advocates loud and clear, this is the way to get the program up and running in as soon a time as possible," he said.
The deal keeps intact a controversial provision capping the level of THC in medical marijuana at 10 percent, which advocates say is too weak and could force patients to buy the drug illegally.
The Senate still could scuttle the deal by approving the resolution that throws out the regulations drafted by the Christie administration. Action on the measure was postponed last week after supporters narrowly failed to get enough votes.
Christie said he had not received cooperation from Scutari and would no longer wait as the lawmaker played "political games while patients were waiting to get medical treatment."
The senator, who was out of town Friday, said in a written statement, "I'm encouraged to hear the governor has decided to follow the legislative intent of the medical marijuana law, but I am waiting to see the revised regulations in writing before I make any decisions on how to move forward."
Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, said that he was not convinced the state had a workable program and that the rules were still too burdensome. He voiced support for passage of the Senate resolution to ensure regulations "that are consistent with the law."
Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, voiced concern that access to medical marijuana still would be inconvenient for many people under a third part of the agreement, which removes a provision in the Christie administration's regulations allowing for home delivery.
She said she was also disappointed at the cancellation, announced Friday, of a Dec. 6 Statehouse hearing on the medical marijuana regulations.
"I think it's very unfortunate that the situation has gotten as contentious as it is, because people's lives are hanging in the balance with this issue," Scotti said. "There's very sick people waiting for access."