Medical marijuana use has bipartisan support

August 24, 2004

Mark Perkiss, New Jersey Times

Don McGrath watched his 5-foot-11 son dwindle to 97 pounds because of cancer that wracked his body and heavy doses of chemotherapy that sapped his appetite.

'He couldn't eat and was wasting away,' McGrath, a Washington Township resident, said of his son, Sean, 28, who died in June after a two-year battle with the disease.

'It was devastating to watch. The medicine they gave him to combat the effects of the chemotherapy didn't work. The only thing that did work was when he started smoking marijuana. That brought back his appetite and gave him some comfort.' 

Now, McGrath wants to help other people suffering from cancer and other painful terminal illnesses find the same kind of relief by legalizing marijuana for medical use.

The cause has found support from an unlikely combination of New Jersey lawmakers from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum - Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton Borough, one of the Assembly's most liberal members, and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris Township, an ardent conservative.

The two have teamed up and are drafting a bill to make New Jersey the 10th state in the nation to decriminalize the medical use of marijuana, even though federal laws still apply in those states.

'Where other pain medications leave off, medical marijuana can fill in and provide relief,' said Gusciora, who said he and Carroll plan to introduce the bill in the fall.

'We're talking about people with terminal illness who deserve some comfort before they pass away,' he said. 'We shouldn't make criminals of people on their death beds.'

Carroll agreed.

'If you can go to your doctor and get a derivative of the poppy to treat pain, why can't you get a derivative of the cannabis plant to treat your symptoms?' he said.

'There is no such thing as an evil plant,' Carroll 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. We're not talking about a Grateful Dead concert.'

Other conservative lawmakers say they might be willing to support the measure.

'Generally speaking, I don't believe we should be legalizing marijuana, but if the controls are serious and strong and the uses are limited, I could see myself voting yes,' said Assemblyman Guy Gregg, R-Washington Township, Morris County. 'There's merit to the argument that we should allow terminal patients comfort in their last days.'

Gregg said he is concerned about how marijuana would be distributed if it were made legal for medical purposes.

A spokeswoman for Gov. James E. McGreevey said the governor opposes legalizing marijuana for medical use.

Even if New Jersey were to adopt the proposed Gusciora-Carroll bill, federal law still prohibits growing, selling and using marijuana.

Carroll said he is not concerned about that. 'What the states are doing and what my goal is is a statement to the federal government to go back and look at its policy because the current policy makes no sense. It limits how doctors treat their patients,' he said.

For Sean McGrath, the idea of using marijuana came from his doctors in New York, said his father, who has joined the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, a year-old group pressing for the legal use of the drug for terminal patients, and is hosting a public forum on the issue for the organization Saturday.

'He was in pain and not eating, and his doctors off-the-record suggested the use of marijuana,' said Don McGrath. 'Sean never used drugs so he had no idea how or where to get it, but he used his . . . connections and was able to get it.

'He would have preferred to use a legal drug, but there was no alternative,' McGrath said. 'He felt uncomfortable because it was illegal, but he was more concerned about the college kids who were delivering it to him. He didn't want them to get arrested.'

Ken Wolski, a nurse for the state Department of Corrections, who co-founded the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, said the organization's goal is simple.

'We're trying to right the injustice of keeping medicine that prevents suffering from sick and dying people. These people need it,' he said. 'It's an issue that cuts across all political boundaries. It's not a liberal or a conservative issue. It's a human rights issue.'

NOTE: Contact Mark Perkiss at mperkiss@njtimes.com or at (609) 943-5727.



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