Medical marijuana debated

June 08, 2006

Elisa Ung, Philadelphia Inquirer

TV-talk-show host Montel Williams and the parents of a now-dead cancer patient urged state senators yesterday to make New Jersey the 12th state to enact a medical marijuana law.

Opponents, including a federal drug enforcement official, said that there was no proof marijuana is safe as medicine and that the proposal could increase teenage drug use.

Legislation in the Senate and Assembly would allow New Jersey's doctors to prescribe small amounts of marijuana as relief for patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, or other debilitating diseases. The Senate's Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee took testimony on the issue yesterday but did not vote.

In emotional remarks, Williams, who has multiple sclerosis and is a registered medical marijuana user in California, said he resented being stigmatized as a "dopehead."

"I'm not only the poster child for MS now around the world, I'm the poster child for pot... . All I'm trying to do is get up in the morning and go to work pain-free," Williams said, choking back tears.

He said he ate and smoked marijuana regularly to relieve chronic pain that prescription painkillers could not ease.

Gerry McGrath, a registered nurse, said her son Sean had been severely weakened by cancer when his doctors suggested he try marijuana, " 'off the record,' of course," she said.

"It was remarkable. For the first time since he was diagnosed, Sean had a smile on his face, and he was able to eat something that didn't come out of a tube," McGrath said.

Marijuana eased her son's pain and spirits until the Robbinsville resident died in 2004 at 28, she said.

Scott Burns, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control policy, testified that "smoked marijuana is not an approved medicine," and that anecdotes were not enough for the Food and Drug Administration to declare the drug safe.

In states that legalize the drug for medical purposes, Burns added, "the perception of its danger is grossly reduced among young people."

Some legislators seemed skeptical that the law would increase drug abuse.

"We are as tough on drugs as anyone is. This is a completely different issue," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex).

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Controlled Substances Act, which bans marijuana, superseded state laws. But the vast majority of drug arrests are made by state and local police under state law, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union).

"We are talking about very sick people who are in desperate need of relief," he said. "These people are not criminals."

Under his bill, the state would monitor the program and issue identification cards to approved patients, who would be allowed to possess no more than 1 ounce of usable marijuana and six marijuana plants.

The legislation is supported by the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians and the New Jersey State Nurses Association.

Gov. Corzine also supports the concept of medical marijuana, spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said.

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