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Opinion: Lift Rules on Medical Marijuana

Restrictions impose needless suffering and expense; it’s time to rethink conventional wisdom.

What does New Jersey have in common with Sarah Palin's Alaska? Six months ago it joined that state and 13 others in approving the medical use of marijuana.

What New Jersey doesn’t share with them are unnecessary restrictions and regulations -- and the likelihood of even more barriers, even though polls show that more than 80% of Garden Staters support medical marijuana.

All this brings up some basic questions. Why is an avowedly anti-government crusader such as Gov. Chris Christie taking such a hard line? Whether it’s his law enforcement background or something else, the governor seems at best uncomfortable with the mere prospect of New Jersey following the lead of Alaska and California, where -- along with Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington -- medical marijuana is helping people cope with chronic pain and illness.

Consider that New Jersey prohibits people afflicted with AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and other debilitating conditions from growing their own. They must buy it on a doctor’s advice from one of six “alternative treatment centers” strictly licensed by the state. And unlike those “compassionate pot” states, New Jersey prevents doctors from prescribing marijuana to combat chronic pain.

Worse could be on the way. Gov. Christie is asking for a year’s delay in the law, which has angered the ranks of the afflicted -- estimated to total at least 5,000 -- who would have to endure another 12 months of worsening medical conditions or seek pot from illegal sources while risking arrest and prosecution.

The Governor and his supporters should be asked why they would further limit access to a naturally occurring “herb” that is relatively harmless and a source of relief for sufferers of nausea, vomiting, “wasting syndrome,” glaucoma and even post-traumatic stress disorder for returning Iraqi-Afghan war veterans.

They should also be asked about recent articles reporting the Administration’s desire to limit marijuana growing to Rutgers at its agriculture campus, making it a state monopoly. Why should legislators grant a monopoly to a state college for producing the medical pot instead of letting market forces go to work and collecting the potential tax revenues from licensed producers?

More basic questions come to mind. Decades after millions of today’s aging “baby boomers” first tried pot in their college years, why indeed is marijuana still treated as a “controlled dangerous substance,” criminalized in the same category as heroin, cocaine or meth? How can pot be a safe palliative for the afflicted and at the same time a threat to our very way of life (remember the cult film “Reefer Madness”)?

Meanwhile, “pot arrests” continue to account for nearly half of the 1.5 million drug possession arrests each year nationwide, even as tax dollars to support police, courts and jails are running low. And data collected by the Drug Policy Alliance reveal that New York City police disproportionately arrest African-Americans, Hispanics and, of course, the young, even though whites and people of color “smoke dope” in about equal rates.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, has famously said. Which means: A crisis is an opportunity to rethink conventional wisdom. Californians are taking that adage to heart; they will vote in November on a referendum to legalize and tax marijuana. This will end waste on the arrest and prosecution of pot users, and the state will reap new tax revenues to help close yawning budget gaps. It may also end the racial targeting of another generation of young people. And it may show the way for the rest of the nation.

Governor Christie, you were elected on a platform of change: How about at least letting the current medical marijuana law take effect without more restrictions and delays?

R. William Potter is a partner in the Princeton-based law firm Potter and Dickson. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or any client.

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