Statehouse Bureau Staff, posted in NJ.com
The battle over New Jersey’s fledgling medical marijuana program intensified Monday as the Assembly approved a measure that would repeal what critics describe as the “overly-restrictive” rules drafted by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.
The same resolution hit a wall in the Senate, however, where Democrats could not muster enough votes in a house they control.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who accused Christie of “overstepping his bounds” by “refusing to implement a program” create by law, said he pulled the item from the Senate agenda after learning Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) was absent and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) would vote no.
“It’s very frustrating,” Scutari said of Stack’s decision, noting Stack had voted for the legislation that legalized medical marijuana earlier this year. Scutari said he suspects Stack, the mayor of cash-strapped Union City, did not want to cross the governor.
Stack’s spokesman Mark Albeiz said the senator remains supportive of the law and denied he would have withheld his vote to curry the governor’s favor. Stack would support Scutari’s resolution if it “clarified” how marijuana distributors were screened and how many distribution sites would be allowed, Albeiz said. “These concerns are not unreasonable for a senator who represents a congested urban district,” he said.
The resolution (SCR130) will be voted on by the full Senate Dec. 13, Scutari said. The Assembly passed the resolution by a 48-22 vote with seven abstentions.
Scutari and Assembly sponsor Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) said they sponsored the resolution because the administration’s rules defy the law and would make it difficult for patients to get access to the drug.
Christie and Health and Senior Services Commissioner Poonam Alaigh said the strict rules are necessary to ensure only the sickest patients get the drug, and that the law does not fuel underground illegal activity.
Democrats object to the administration’s decision to restrict the number of growers to two and the nonprofit retail sites to four with the opportunity for the owners to each open on more a year later. The law called for an initial six nonprofit grower-sellers to open — two each in the northern, central and southern parts of the state — with the potential for more at the discretion of the state health department.
Restricting growers would mean the drug would need to be delivered by truck, creating a security problem, Gusciora said, adding he could envision a “21st Century Jesse James” heist happening. The lawmakers also object to the 10 percent potency limit imposed on all medical pot sold.
These and other “restrictions are clearly outside the legislative intent,” Gusciora said. “If we relax the regulations the thing will go back to being about patient care.”
Earlier in the day at a town hall meeting in Hackettstown, Christie dismissed the resolution as a political game that would delay the program for seriously ill people with a legitimate need. The program is expected to begin in July 2011.
“If they get rid of the regulations I have, then I have to go back and rewrite those regulations,” Christie said. “I want this to be finished. I want to implement it and be done with it.”