Trying to straddle a potentially dangerous social issue, Gov. Chris Christie agreed on Friday to expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, but stopped short of what parents of children with life-threatening diseases say is necessary to improve their access to treatment. Mr. Christie would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to provide edible marijuana, but only for children. Parents say the edible product provides the benefits but not the high of marijuana, and makes it easier to treat children who are too impaired to smoke. Mr. Christie also eliminated a part of the law that limits to three the number of strains of marijuana that dispensaries can cultivate.
But the Legislature had approved a bill aligning regulations for children with what is required for adults in the program, which is already considered the nation’s strictest. Children, like adults, could be prescribed marijuana by a doctor registered with the state, under the proposal.
Mr. Christie vetoed that part of the legislation, keeping in place the requirement that parents have letters of support from a pediatrician and a psychiatrist as well as a prescription from a doctor registered in the program. Of about 250 doctors on the state registry, 2 are pediatricians and 16 are psychiatrists.
Parents who had lobbied for the bill said that requirement would make it harder to obtain medical marijuana because pediatricians and psychiatrists often know so little about the program that they do not want to support it, and finding a registered doctor willing to prescribe to a child is already difficult.
“It’s forcing people to shop around for physicians, and parents of sick kids don’t have time for that,” said Meghan Wilson, whose 2-year-old daughter, Vivian, suffers from Dravet syndrome, which causes prolonged seizures so severe that she cannot be in the sunshine or near brightly colored objects. “It’s putting undue burden on parents who are already at their wits’ end,” she said.
Vivian sleeps wearing an alarm that monitors her heart rate and oxygen levels. Parents in other states have found that a particular strain of medical marijuana greatly reduces the frequency and duration of seizures for children with Dravet’s.
Mr. Christie, a Republican who is considered a leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, was pushed to make his decision in the national spotlight this week after Vivian’s father, Brian, confronted him during what was supposed to be a victory lap at a diner in Scotch Plains, N.J., where the mayor was endorsing the governor’s bid for re-election.
Mr. Christie’s motorcade arrived to bright pink signs and several dozen people urging him to sign the bill expanding medical marijuana. Mr. Wilson, who lives there, had written “father and voter” on his T-shirt. He waited in the diner for three hours to confront Mr. Christie — saying he would have brought Vivian, but she was sick.
Mr. Christie largely ignored the signs and Mr. Wilson while he posed for photos. When Mr. Wilson finally got his chance to ask the governor whether he would sign the bill, Mr. Christie replied, “These are complicated issues.”
As Mr. Wilson persisted, Mr. Christie replied, “Listen, I know you think it’s simple. It’s simple for you, it’s not simple for me. I’ve read everything that you have put in front of me and I’ll have a decision by Friday. I wish the best for you, your daughter and your family, and I’m going to do what I think is best for the people of the state, all the people of the state.”
As the governor turned away, Mr. Wilson pleaded, in a scene captured on widely disseminated news videos, “Please don’t let my daughter die, Governor.”
Mr. Christie inherited the medical marijuana program from his predecessor, Jon S. Corzine, who signed the law authorizing it in the waning hours of his administration. Mr. Christie has made no secret of disliking it. His health department spent two years coming up with regulations restricting how and where medical marijuana could be provided, and only one dispensary has opened so far. The governor waited nearly two months to decide what to do about the bill on medical marijuana for children, which would have become law on Monday if he had not acted on it.
“He feels it will reflect poorly on him in the presidential election because if he signs it people will say, ‘He’s the man who gave pot to tots,’ ” said Ms. Wilson, who manages clinical drug trials for a large pharmaceutical company. “I think it will reflect poorly if he doesn’t sign it because people will say, ‘You’re the guy who wanted that kid to die.’ ”
Mr. Christie said he was “acting with the belief that parents, and not government regulators, are best suited to decide how to care for their children” — a line that could signal reassurance to conservative voters, who may dislike medical marijuana but dislike government control even more, especially when it comes to how they raise their children.
The governor’s refusal to expand the program was criticized by legislators, who had approved the measure with a large, bipartisan majority.
“It’s unfortunate that these families were forced to wait nearly two months while this legislation languished on the governor’s desk, and now he is prolonging their suffering by telling them they must wait even longer,” Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who sponsored the bill, said.
Other states allow medical marijuana for children, and parents swear by its power to relieve their children’s debilitating conditions. But it has not been without controversy.
In California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, doctors have reported concerns about the high number of prescriptions to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, when the active ingredient in marijuana can, some say, aggravate its symptoms.
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