N.J. Assembly approves changes to medical marijuana law

nj pot law changeA 2-year-old Scotch Plains girl and other sick children who qualify for medical marijuana moved closer to getting treatment when the New Jersey Assembly overwhelmingly approved changes in the regulations Monday. Vivian Wilson, a toddler who suffers from a rare and severe form of epilepsy, was issued a card to obtain the drug in February but faced a number of roadblocks, including a ban on edible cannabis. Moved by her story, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill in June to reverse the ban and make other changes, but were asked to revisit the issue after Gov. Christie attached recommendations to a veto last month. A few weeks later, the Senate approved the recommendations, and the Assembly followed suit Monday with a 70-1 vote, with four abstentions. The revised bill returns to the governor’s desk for his signature.

“We are happy that this is finally being signed into law,” Vivian’s parents, Brian and Meghan Wilson, said in a statement. “Our next focus will be working with [state Health Commissioner] Mary E. O’Dowd and Department of Health to ensure that this law is properly regulated according to the true intent of the law so that Vivian and all of the other patients in New Jersey can finally start getting the type of medicine they need in the form they need.”

So far, Vivian has been unable to obtain cannabis, partly because of the problems with the law and partly because only one dispensary is open and it cannot meet the demand. Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D., Middlesex), a prime sponsor of the bill, also issued a statement: “For Vivian and many children like her, marijuana may be the only treatment that can provide life-changing relief. As a state, we should not stand in the way of that.” The legislators initially passed a bill allowing edible marijuana to be sold to all registered marijuana patients, but Christie recommended that this variety be restricted to children. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), another sponsor, said he would have preferred that elderly patients and others who cannot smoke also be eligible for edible marijuana, which includes tablets and syrup. During a campaign stop at a diner last month, Christie got into a heated exchange with Brian Wilson, who questioned why Christie had not signed the bill for two months and who said, “Please don’t let my daughter die.” His daughter has frequent seizures that could shorten her life, and cannabis has helped epileptic children in other states. Christie’s reply was that the bill raised “complicated issues.”

“It’s simple for you, it’s not simple for me,” he said. “I’m going to do what’s best for the people of the state, all of the people of the state.” Christie, a Republican, has said repeatedly that he wants strict regulations to prevent people from getting access to pot if they are not sick. Wilson blamed politics and said Christie was concerned about his conservative base as he considers a run in the 2016 presidential primaries. Another change in the revised bill permits dispensaries to cultivate more than three strains of marijuana. The Wilsons have said the three-strain limit makes it difficult for dispensaries to provide a cannabis strain tailored to a small percentage of the patients.

Children with the rare epilepsy, Meghan Wilson said, require a strain that is high in an antiseizure chemical and low in the ingredient that gives the user a high. Christie let that amendment stand but opposed another that would require children to get only one doctor to approve their use of cannabis. Currently, children must have a psychiatrist and a pediatrician sign off on the drug, and if neither of them is registered, they need to enlist a third doctor.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R., Monmouth), a supporter of medical marijuana, said, “Requiring a psychiatrist is a pointless hurdle.” He noted that he worked with the Wilsons to help them find a psychiatrist so Vivian would qualify to take cannabis, and said it was a difficult process.

Overall, he called the bill “real progress,” but said the psychiatrist requirement was unfortunate because “there is a dearth of psychiatrists willing to participate.”

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