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Are New Jersey's marijuana laws outdated?

  • 4 min to read

Stephen Cornell smokes pot twice a day to keep the pain and stiffness in his neck away.

The 45-year-old Smithville resident has been a quadriplegic since he was 6, after he fell trying to jump from one tram car to another outside Atlantic City Race Course. He’s smoked marijuana as medicine — both legally and illegally — since he was 16.

But Cornell is breaking the law.

His medical marijuana card from California doesn’t cover him in New Jersey. He’s been living back and forth between the two states since 2010 but didn’t get a card in New Jersey right away because he was apprehensive about the state's marijuana program. One reservation he has is the inability to grow and cultivate his own pot, which one can do in California.

Philadelphia decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in October. New Jersey’s neighbor to the north, New York state, has done the same. Across the country, pot is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

Yet New Jersey, a Northeastern and traditionally blue state, still has some of the strictest marijuana laws in the country. Not only is it illegal for recreational use, it’s still difficult to get for medical use. All for what many say has medical benefits and is something no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, which are legal drugs.

As marijuana activists celebrate 4/20, a cannabis consumption counterculture holiday Monday, it’s worth asking: Are New Jersey’s marijuana laws outdated?

“Sometimes you have to break unjust laws in order to further society,” Cornell said, citing Mahatma Gandhi, as he lit up a marijuana cigarette he pulled from an orange prescription drug bottle.

Unlike the Percocet he was prescribed that “whacked me out,” he said the marijuana works much better and keeps him “cognitively present.” It also helps with his appetite, as Cornell lost about 87 percent of his stomach after a surgery to remove an ulcer.

“It’s been a huge benefit,” he said.

But his first appointment June 1 with a registered physician is just the beginning of what will likely be a long process. He must see his primary-care doctor, who needs to give the marijuana physician Cornell’s medical records. He also has to register on a website.

‘Woefully inadequate’

The man who helped write the state’s first medical marijuana bill thinks the state is behind on pot laws.

Bill Caruso, former executive director of the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office, said the 2010 medical marijuana law hasn’t expanded quickly enough to keep up with the number of diseases that can be treated with marijuana, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Caruso, now on the steering committee for New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition that advocates for the legalization of pot, said the 2010 law was novel and groundbreaking at the time and the state was “on the frontier” of marijuana laws.

“That said, in 2015, it’s woefully inadequate,” Caruso said. “The intent of the Legislature and the governor at the time was to put a placeholder down and start. We had to start from something.”

A state government report released this month found that just more than 3,600 people received legal medical marijuana in New Jersey during the first 25 months of the program. Only three of the six approved dispensaries have opened, and the state reported that the availability of marijuana varied widely at those dispensaries. Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, Essex County, sold marijuana to patients fewer than seven days per month on average.

Compassionate Care Foundation, the marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, declined an interview request for this story.

John H. O’Brien, director of the state Department of Health’s Medicinal Marijuana Program for the past 3½ years, resigned effective April 4. He and his family are relocating, the department said.

In a statement, O’Brien said he was “grateful for the opportunity to be a part of one of the more significant social changes in recent history.”

The Legislature has introduced easing marijuana restrictions. In 2012, the Assembly passed a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of pot. In March, the same Democrat-led body passed a resolution that found the medical marijuana program was not being run in compliance with the intent of the 2010 law.

But the state’s 21 county prosecutors sent a letter last week to Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, stating “unanimous opposition” to bills that would legalize small amounts of pot for those over 21.

They wrote that there are many misconceptions about marijuana. They said pot is more potent and powerful now. They cited a study that showed emergency room admissions involving marijuana rose from 281,619 in 2004 to 461,028 in 2010.

‘Blood money’

“As long as I’m governor of New Jersey,” Gov. Chris Christie vowed in Manahawkin in March, “there won't be legalized marijuana in this state.”

Christie has long been against any easing of marijuana laws. He opposed the medical marijuana law when he was running for governor. He also threatened to veto the 2012 Assembly-passed bill that decriminalized small amounts of pot.

In June, Christie said medical marijuana programs are “a front for legalization.”

“I am done expanding the medical marijuana program under any circumstances,” he said in 2013.

In Manahawkin, the possible presidential contender called pot a “gateway drug” and said it “should not be permitted in our society.” Christie even criticized states that have legalized marijuana in pursuit of tax revenue.

“To me, that’s blood money,” he said.

But Michelle Dunbar, executive director of the St. Jude Retreats in upstate New York, disagreed with much of what of the governor said.

“There’s no evidence to support that whatsoever,” Dunbar said of the claim that pot is a gateway drug. “There’s no data anywhere.”

She said marijuana users represent fewer than 2 percent of those who enroll in her drug-addiction retreat program. The vast majority come for alcohol and prescription pill abuse.

‘Inevitable’

The coalition in favor of pot legalization is broad. There are those involved for the medicinal aspect, such as Cornell. Some are in it for social justice, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

And then there are those like Caruso, who come from the perspective of government. He said a law legalizing pot could simultaneously cut costs associated with incarceration and raise revenue from taxes at the same time.

“We’re at a time where there are a lot of problems and not a lot of money to go around. And taxing the populace just isn’t an ability for us anymore,” he said. “It is a rare find in government when you can solve a funding problem on both sides of the ledger.”

Caruso called marijuana legalization in New Jersey “inevitable.”

“We won’t be first. We may not be next. We’re definitely not going to be last,” he said. “But it’s coming.”

Contact Christian Hetrick:

609-272-7215

Print Director

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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