Medical pot will get a hearing

May 13, 2006


For the first time, the New Jersey Legislature will hear testimony on a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. Those whose minds are closed to any drug policy other than absolute prohibition are enormously influential at the State House, but this is a step forward.

A Senate health committee chaired by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge, has scheduled a June 8 session at which experts will discuss a bill sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Linden, to allow the production, sale and possession of pot under strict safeguards for the benefit of those with a legitimate medical need. A similar measure has been introduced in the Assembly by Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton Borough, and Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris Township, but it never has had a hearing.

Eleven states and the Dominion of Canada already authorize doctors to prescribe marijuana under tight restrictions on grounds that the drug appears to have significant medical value and can be safe and effective in suppressing symptoms that don't respond well to conventional drugs. But powerful forces oppose granting any exemption for compassionate reasons, starting with the Bush Justice Department. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed U.S. drug agents to arrest and prosecute violators of the federal ban on the sale or possession of pot, even though the accused were acting legally under California's medical marijuana law.

More recently, the Food and Drug Administration, which the Bush administration has extensively politicized, announced that "no sound scientific studies support medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States." This contradicted a 1999 (pre-Bush) finding from the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, which reported that "marijuana's active components are potentially effective in treating pain, nausea, the anorexia of AIDS wasting and other symptoms, and should be tested rigorously in clinical trials."

Here in New Jersey, the forthcoming Senate hearings were criticized by Terrence P. Farley, an Ocean County prosecutor, who called Sen. Scutari's bill an effort "to get marijuana legalized" for general use, which it manifestly is not. Replied Sen. Scutari: "We're walking in the front door to attempt the legalization of a substance that has been utilized for pain relief for centuries. This is about compassion for people who are at their weakest or on their deathbeds."

For too many legislators, those people aren't part of their constituency. But sentiment may be shifting. Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would sign a medical marijuana bill if it came to his desk. The co-sponsorship of the Assembly bill by Assemblyman Carroll -- one of the most conservative members of the Legislature -- is evidence that the ideological wall against the proposal can be breached. "There is no such thing as an evil plant," Assemblyman Carroll has said. "If a doctor using his or her best medical judgment thinks marijuana is the best thing for the patient, he or she should be allowed to prescribe it. Use it as medical science decides it should be used."

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