TV host pushes N.J. on medical marijuana

June 07, 2006

Robert Schwaneberg, Star-Ledger (NJ)

His voice quaking with emotion, TV talk show host Montel Williams offered this self-introduction: "I want you to meet someone who's not a drug dealer, not a dope addict, just somebody who's trying to get up every morning and go to work."

Williams went on to explain how marijuana eases the symptoms of his multiple sclerosis enough to let him function. Registered with programs in California and Canada that permit possession of small amounts of marijuana for medical use, he urged New Jersey to adopt one of its own.

Today, the Senate Health Committee is scheduled to discuss such a bill. Its sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), said it is "basic human decency" to allow people with AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other afflictions to find relief through marijuana.

"It's not a back-door attempt at wholesale legalization, as some have charged. I want to make that clear," Scutari said.

Eleven states have enacted laws permitting the "compassionate use" of marijuana by patients who have a physician's certification that they need it for medical reasons. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that those laws are trumped by the federal Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits possession of marijuana nationwide.

"I break the law every day and I'll continue to break the law," Williams said.

Scutari's bill says states are under no obligation to enforce the federal ban on marijuana. It adds that "99 out of 100 marijuana arrests in the country are made under state law," so passing his bill "will have the practical effect of protecting from arrest the vast majority of seriously ill people who have a medical need to use marijuana."

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, Williams said he lives with twitching and constant pain.

"I have tried every form of pain medication known to man," some of which produced debilitating side effects, he said. Finally, he said, a doctor recommended he smoke pot, and "immediately I slept through the night." He said he eats and smokes marijuana to keep his pain under control.

"By doing that, I can go to work," he said.

Bertha Madras, deputy director for demand reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a telephone interview: "We cannot base medical decisions on anecdotes."

"There isn't any recognized use for medical marijuana in the long term," Madras said. "It is simply not a modern medicine. You cannot tightly control the composition of a plant in the same way you can a regular pharmaceutical."

At yesterday's news conference, the Drug Policy Alliance released a poll of 700 registered New Jersey voters that found 86 percent agree that seriously ill patients should have access to medical marijuana.

"It's an unequivocal endorsement under those circumstances," said Kellyanne Conway, president of The Polling Company of Washington, D.C., which conducted the survey.

The issue is one on which U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and his opponent, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), disagree.

On June 15, one week after last year's Supreme Court ruling, the House considered an amendment that would have prohibited federal interference with state laws establishing medical marijuana programs. It was defeated 264-161, with Menendez and every Democrat in the New Jersey delegation voting for it.

Kean, a member of the Senate Health Committee, "is completely against medicinal marijuana," according to Rogan Kelly, deputy press secretary of his campaign.

Gov. Jon Corzine supports medical marijuana in concept, according to his spokesman, Anthony Coley.

"If a doctor prescribes medical marijuana, we should honor his or her judgment and do what is in the best interest of the patient," Coley said.

Scutari said he is unsure of his bill's prospects for passage.

"Right now, we're trying to educate people," he said.

Robert Schwaneberg covers legal issues. He may be reached at rschwaneberg@starledger.com or (609) 989-0324.



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