Story by Susan K. Livio (Statehouse Bureau) / Photos by Frank H. Conlon (The Star-Ledger)
TRENTON — State lawmakers took the first step today toward repealing the rules drafted by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for the state’s new medical marijuana program, saying they would block many worthy patients from getting the drug.
In separate votes, the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee and the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved a resolution that would scrap the rules the state Department of Health and Senior Services announced last month. The full Legislature must approve the resolution for the rules to be repealed.
“There are a number of different areas we should be concerned about, all of which concern me that the administration does not want this to be successful,’’ Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the upper house sponsor, said to applause in the committee room.
For hours, patients walking with canes or using wheelchairs were among those who testified about how happy they were when the “New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act’’ was signed in January, and how disappointed they are because they say the rules are far stricter than the law intended.
Scutari and Assembly sponsor Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) objected to a half dozen decisions made by the health department, including licensing two growers and four dispensaries to serve the state, as opposed to the six cultivators-sellers described in the law. They also argued against the department’s decision to prohibit any facility from 1,000 feet from a school zone, “prohibiting them forever from urban areas,’’ Scutari said.
Diane Riportella of Egg Harbor, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, wept at the thought of not living long enough to participate in a program the state expects to launch next summer.
When she smokes pot illegally, “I feel normal. I can express myself and be the person I want to be,’’ Riportella said, her father and husband standing behind her wheelchair. Legal pain killers like morphine “leave me lifeless and in a state unrecognizable to my husband and my family.’’
Cindy Kleiner, 47, from Wantage, in chronic pain from two serious car accidents, said she objected to the health department’s proposal to limit the strength of the THC in the drug, the dominant active ingredient, to 10 percent. “On the street, that’s considered dirt weed,’’ Kleiner said. ’
In an interview after the hearings, Deputy Health Commissioner Susan Walsh said the rules create a “medical model’’ that will prevent recreational users from legally buying the drug.
Preventing a dispensary from opening in a school zone takes into account this is still an illegal substance, Walsh said. Patients near schools have other ways to obtain the drug, she said. “If you are a patient with a certifying illness and will not be able to get it yourself, your primary caregiver can get it, or you may have medical marijuana delivered. It’s as easy as it can be.’’
The state limited the THC levels because research has been “done around that level,’’ Walsh said. “We have nothing to say a higher level would help more.’’