One toke over the (state) line

January 12, 2010

Veronica Torrejón, The Morning Call

New Jersey is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Lehigh Valley, but it may as well be the other side of the moon for terminally ill patients here seeking to benefit from a Garden State law legalizing medical marijuana. The new bill, expected to be signed by New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine before he leaves office next week, limits the use of medical marijuana to state residents.

That means there's no legal way for people from Pennsylvania to relieve their pain by smoking pot here, no matter how resourceful they are at finding the right doctor, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. The national group advocates legal access to marijuana for therapeutic uses and research.

"There are no protections if you are in a state where there is no provision for [medical marijuana]," Hermes said. "It would be up to a jury, but a patient in Pennsylvania cannot assume protection or exception from the law."

Called the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, the bill approved by the Legislature on Monday allows Garden State patients with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other conditions to buy up to 2 ounces of marijuana a month at state-monitored dispensaries.

The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services would issue registry ID cards to patients with "debilitating medical conditions." Patients with registry cards would be immune from arrest or prosecution for the medical use of marijuana.

Patients with conditions such as cancer and glaucoma must demonstrate severe or chronic pain, nausea, seizures, muscle spasms or wasting syndrome to qualify.

They also have to live in New Jersey, said health department spokeswoman Marilyn Riley. Pennsylvania residents would not qualify for registry cards even if they have a doctor in New Jersey.

The only question for Pennsylvania is whether law enforcement officials here will prosecute New Jersey residents who bring the drug here for their own use.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli declined to say whether he would prosecute people with New Jersey registry cards who cross the state line to work in neighboring Northampton County and bring their pot with them.

Morganelli said he'd have to take a look at the bill before he could comment.

After Corzine signs the bill, New Jersey will be the 14th state to allow chronically ill patients access to marijuana for medical use.

It's unlikely that Pennsylvania will follow suit anytime soon.

A state House committee took up a bill last month that would allow people with some medical conditions to buy small amounts of marijuana to treat chronic pain and nausea brought on by their illnesses or the treatments they undergo. But even if the House passes it, Senate leaders have said they won't take it up.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Cohen, D- Philadelphia, would set up state-regulated distribution sites known as "compassion centers." As in New Jersey, medical marijuana users here would have to register with the state Department of Health. They would pay a $50 registration fee and carry a state-issued identification card.

Cohen has said the centers would generate roughly $25 million annually in state sales tax on the marijuana they sell, and that money could be used for addiction services.

Dr. Laurence Karper, vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Lehigh Valley Health Network, would welcome more money for addiction services. But legalizing medical marijuana is not something Karper necessarily favors.

Karper found himself answering many questions on the topic of medical marijuana as the bill in New Jersey gathered speed.

As a physician who works with the addicted, Karper is concerned that the drug is untested, its benefits unproved, and that it could lead to addiction. But as a humanitarian, Karper isn't so sure.

"I think I'm of two minds," he said. "Should we waste resources putting medically ill people in jail when that's the only thing that helps them? To me that would seem to be a waste of resources."

From a medical perspective, he said marijuana is a potentially dangerous drug that can cause acute paranoia, anxiety and other problems. Without rigorous scientific testing and approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, marijuana as a medical therapy is risky, Karper said.

"People shouldn't kid themselves that this is something that is nontoxic and has no problems because it's natural," he said. "Arsenic is natural. Many things that are natural are also toxic."

As with anything else, he said, a healthy dose of caution is recommended.

"Some people say it makes them feel better," he said. "However, that has to be balanced against the possible side effects."

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