Riportella
Diane Riportella and her husband, Paul, talk about her diagnosis of ALS as they sit in their Egg Harbor Township home in 2008. Riportella is an advocate for the recently passed medical marijuana law in New Jersey. Danny Drake

One of the last things Gov. Jon S. Corzine did before he left office this month was sign legislation Monday decriminalizing two ounces of marijuana per month for some medical patients.

But it will be at least six months, if not longer, before New Jersey residents can use the drug. And even then, a number of state residents will likely be left behind.

For Diane Riportella, not much changes, for now.

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The bill sets up alternative treatment centers and establishes a list of medical conditions that will allow people to register to legally smoke marijuana.

She has advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal disease better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is covered by the law. The disease has withered the muscles in her wrists and ankles, leaving them to dangle painfully.

The law will allow a person to buy two ounces of marijuana from state-licensed dispensaries. The first six dispensaries — two each in the state’s northern, central and southern regions — must be nonprofits, but subsequent ones don’t have to be.

Riportella, 53, said she smokes as many as a half-dozen marijuana cigarettes per day to combat the pain and anxiety she said grows worse at night. She can use three ounces in a month.

The Egg Harbor Township woman has used marijuana for years. Asked how she acquires the currently illegal substance, she joked, “If I tell you, I have to kill you.”

Until the law takes effect, she said she will continue to get marijuana from friends who share what they have, not wanting to see her suffer. Any shortfall would likely be filled the same way.

“I never felt like a criminal, but for those people who aren’t as aggressive as I am, those people are so afraid of getting caught,” she said. “I feel really bad for these people. I myself have brought (joints) to other ALS patients and their caregivers if I had something and I know they won’t go out and get it.”

New Jersey’s law is considered the most restrictive in the nation for three reasons, said Beth Schroeder, aide to state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who sponsored the bill:

  • New Jersey is the only state of 14 with medicinal marijuana laws that bans patients from growing it in their own homes.
  • Patients are restricted to two ounces of usable marijuana per month. This is less than other states, in part because of the ban on growing marijuana, and the 30-day limit.
  • The drug is for people suffering from a “debilitating medical condition,” and that is the most limited. The designation does not include severe or chronic pain, she said, or people with neuropathic pain stemming from birth defects or from burns, amputations or spinal surgery.

The law allows the state Department of Health and Senior Services to administratively adopt other conditions that can be treated with marijuana.

But with incoming Gov. Chris Christie appointing a new DHSS commissioner, it is unclear how the agency will react. Christie is a socially conservative Republican and former U.S. Attorney who did not oppose medicinal marijuana on the campaign trail, instead calling for additional restrictions.

For Jack O’Brien, a 55-year-old from Millville, not much will change, even after the law takes effect.

“Well, you know what I will be doing is what I done before: Hurry up and wait,” said O’Brien, who has used marijuana for years to treat chronic pain. “I’m just going to wait until it’s put into place and I’ll access me a card and access my medicine.”

But the way the law is written, he will be excluded.

“I was born without fingers and toes. No reason why, just born that way,” he said. “But my condition over the years has produced neuropathic pain, from nerve endings not fully formed.”

Marijuana effectively relieves his pain, but ever since he publicly said he uses it, O’Brien said he has been under surveillance.

He said he was optimistic he would eventually be covered because marijuana effectively relieved his pain with minimal side effects. “I have not found a pain medication that did that, except for pain medications that wouldn’t let me get off the couch or a pill that would not let me sit here and communicate with you like I am now.”

New Jersey lawmakers took steps to restrict access to marijuana after testimony raised concerns about the experience in California. After voters there approved a medical marijuana measure in 1996, relatively lenient standards for treatment meant the drug has been essentially decriminalized in parts of the state.

Opponents, however, do not think the New Jersey law’s restrictions are adequate. Joyce Nalepka, president of DrugFree Kids: America's Challenge, said her organization gave Corzine its first annual skunk award for bad policy. She said, “If California is any example of what is going to happen, it’s going to be pretty messy.”

Robert Goldberg, director of medical oncology at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, said he would consider prescribing the drug when other treatments fall short.

Some of his patients used marijuana in the 1980s to relieve symptoms associated with the treatment of cancer. But with improvements in medicine, he could not think of any current patients to whom he would suggest it.

He questioned the variability of different crops and its suitability for people with difficulties inhaling.

Ultimately, he said his loyalty was to his patients. “I jokingly tell patients, ‘If blue mud helps, well, here’s a bucket and shovel.’”

Contact Derek Harper:

609-272-7046

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