Marijuana hearing pits talk show host, drug officials

June 08, 2006

Bob Groves, The Record (NJ)

A tearful TV talk show host and a federal deputy drug czar squared off Thursday over a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical uses. The bill, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, would allow patients suffering from cancer or some other chronic medical condition to use marijuana to ease pain, nausea, seizures and severe, persistent muscle spasms and other debilitating symptoms.

Friends and foes of a proposal packed the state Senate Health Committee on Thursday. Here are both sides of the debate.

-- Bob Groves

PRO: Easing the pain

Choking back sobs several times, Montel Williams told the standing-room-only crowd that he has not missed a day hosting his daytime television program in the past seven years, despite smoking and eating marijuana daily to ease pain in his feet caused by multiple sclerosis.

"It doesn't get me high at all," Williams said. "All it does is allow my feet to stop from hurting.

"What angers me so much now is people consider me a dope head, and all I want to do is get up and go to work," Williams told the hearing.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union, is similar to legislation passed in 11 other states. It would allow patients who have a debilitating disease or chronic medical condition such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS or glaucoma to use marijuana to alleviate symptoms.

If passed, the law would also shield primary caregivers, and doctors who prescribe the drug, from prosecution in New Jersey. Qualified patients would be issued an identification card from the state Health Department and be allowed to possess up to six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, is sponsoring an identical bill. Similar bills by the two legislators did not reach a vote in 2004.

Supporters stress that marijuana does not have to be smoked to be effective, but can be taken in pills and liquid, or mixed in food.

Looking trim in a business suit, with his trademark shaved head and left earring, Williams said he has spoken to more than 3 million schoolchildren about staying drug-free.

Canada and Great Britain have approved medical marijuana in various forms, such as sprays, for different conditions, Williams said. Although the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drug for medical use, studies in the past 60 years have shown it to be safe and effective, Williams said.

"For us to argue efficacy is ridiculous," he said.

Scutari said his measure will provide doctors with another option for pain management. "This bill is not an attempt to back-door marijuana for recreational use," he said.

A poll commissioned by the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey found 86 percent of voters queried in New Jersey believe seriously ill patients should have access to medical marijuana if a doctor recommends it. Eleven percent disagree.

The same telephone poll, conducted last month, found that 59 percent believe that marijuana has "medical benefits"; 17 percent dismissed its therapeutic properties.

Fifty-nine percent of those polled said they would defy current law to obtain marijuana for a loved one suffering from a condition that could be eased by the drug.

Don McGrath, whose 26-year-old son Sean died of cancer two years ago, told the panel that when all other drugs failed to ease his son's nausea from chemotherapy, an oncologist recommended marijuana "off the record."

"As a parent and a caregiver for Sean, I didn't need several years of clinical studies or an FDA approval to determine that marijuana was effective," his father said.

CON: Risky, unproven

Marijuana has not been proved safe and effective for medicinal uses and could lead to drug abuse, Scott Burns, deputy drug czar in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified.

The FDA advises that "marijuana is not medicine, and has demonstrated health risks," Burns said. The federal Food and Drug Administration does not endorse its use as a pain reliever, though it has approved use of a prescription drug made with an active ingredient found in marijuana.

"There is no compelling evidence that marijuana relieves symptoms" of these diseases, for which other treatments are available, Burns said.

A White House drug enforcement official on Thursday also dismissed efforts to pass a medical marijuana law in New Jersey, saying "anecdotal evidence should not drive our nation's approval process for prescription drugs."

Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director for demand reduction in the White House drug policy office, described marijuana as potentially addictive and capable of causing harmful health effects.

Burns agreed.

"Marijuana is the most widely used illegal substance," he said.

"In states where it is normalized and called medicine, the perception of its danger is grossly reduced among young people."

The number of teenagers driving while on drugs is increasing, Burns said.

The government worries that legalizing marijuana would lead to more illegal drug use.

David G. Evans of the Drug-Free School Coalition of Flemington said his opposition to the bill "is really a consumer protection issue.

"We don't allow any other home-grown drug to be used. Plus, the science just doesn't back it up," he said.

The coalition cites a 2005 Rutgers University poll that said public support for medical marijuana dropped from 82 percent in 2002 to 72 percent last year.

State Sen. Robert W. Singer, R-Ocean, a committee member, said he was concerned that the bill allowed marijuana use for end-of-life illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, but also for less threatening diseases such glaucoma, which his 8-year-old daughter has.

"There has to be penalties to regulate it," Singer said.

Earlier this week, Singer, the ranking Republican on the health committee, said there were many questions to be answered.

"The bill says you can't operate heavy machinery, but it doesn't say it's not allowed at work," Singer said.

The person you designate to pick it up has to be 18 years old, but you can't be 18 and buy a drink," he said.

"Is this something you can do strictly in the privacy of home, or at the beach or an entertainment event, like a concert or ballgame?"


This article contains material from The Associated Press. E-mail: groves@northjersey.com



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