New Jersey and Pennsylvania should join 13 other states in finally legalizing medical marijuana to allow seriously ill patients to potentially benefit from its use.

After years of debate, the movement got a big boost in Trenton last month when the state Senate approved a bill that would allow medical use of marijuana. It is the first time such legislation has emerged from committee. A full vote is still needed by the Assembly, but Gov. Corzine has said he would sign the bill.

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Philadelphia) plans to introduce a similar bill next month. It would require prescriptions and set regulations for distribution and sales.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder lifted a potential roadblock last week by announcing federal agents would target medical marijuana dispensaries only when they violate both federal and state laws - a departure from Bush administration policy. That should clear up the confusion when state laws allow the use and sale of marijuana for medical purposes, but the federal government does not.

The New Jersey bill would authorize state-registered smokers and their primary caregivers to have up to six marijuana plants and one ounce of marijuana. Those eligible would get ID cards issued by the state Department of Health and Senior Services. Marijuana could also be purchased at licensed centers.

Supporters believe allowing seriously ill or dying patients to use marijuana could have a tremendous health benefit. Researchers generally agree that it can ease pain and suffering from debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer or AIDS, and improve quality of life.

A 2006 poll by the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey of 700 registered voters found that 86 percent support the bill. But opponents say the bill in its current wording would give too many people access to marijuana. Others say it would give a mixed message to law enforcement in the drug war.

Some have tried to cloud the issue with more controversy by suggesting that approving the bill would be a first step toward legalizing marijuana. That doesn't seem likely, though the bill may need fine-tuning.

New Jersey could learn from other states that have passed similar laws. If approved, the state should move cautiously in licensing dispensaries that sell medical marijuana. Tighter controls and regulations are also needed to limit access only to those with legitimate illnesses. Clear guidelines are needed for doctors to write prescriptions.

State Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic) said the intent behind the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act is to help ill and dying people, not to create a lucrative business. The intent is worth pursuing.