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New Medical-Marijuana Rules Set for Review

Regulations are already drawing fire from some legislators as being among the most restrictive in the country.

After almost a year of continual argument between lawmakers and the administration, regulations overseeing the state’s medical marijuana law have emerged from the rulemaking meat grinder and will be finally be up for public comment next week. But that doesn’t mean everyone is satisfied.

Health and Senior Services Commissioner Dr. Poonam Alaigh told the Senate Health Committee on Thursday she still has reservations about the concept in general, underscoring that marijuana is a federally controlled substance that is "unsafe and has highly addictive qualities." The administration’s goal in implementing the law, she said, is "ensuring therapeutic effects… but mitigating psychoactive, deleterious effects."

The first draft of the regulations -- to implement a law signed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine before he left office in January 2010 -- was roundly criticized for not aligning with the intent of the law when it was released this past fall. Since then, the health department has redrafted the 111-page document to accommodate some of these concerns. It is these rules that will be given a public hearing before department officials on Monday.

The new rules call for six "alternative treatment centers" spread throughout the state that could both cultivate and dispense medical marijuana to qualifying patients. The earlier regulations were far more restrictive, allowing for only four centers and two growers. The rules also relaxed previous requirements that all patients exhaust traditional treatments before they can obtain medical marijuana, now limiting this restriction to a handful of diseases.

Legislators said they are pleased the measure is moving, but they are still not content with all the details as drafted -- like limits the state is proposing on the strength, or THC content, of the marijuana. The rules also prohibit home delivery, something Gov. Chris Christie had suggested support for in the past.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) pressed the commissioner on why legally prescribed marijuana could not be sent to seriously ill patients at home, like other medications. This includes painkillers like Oxycontin, which are labeled as controlled substances.

The administration’s reasoning, Alaigh said, is based on federal law. While the federal government allows pharmacies to mail medications -- including addictive ones that can be abused -- it also considers marijuana possession to be illegal. She added that home delivery was excluded as the result of a "compromise between the legislature and governor."

A December 3 press release from the governor’s office heralds a bipartisan agreement with Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) as a sponsor of the measure. The release highlights several of the changes in the regulations, including the exclusion of home delivery.

But Alaigh’s recollection prompted a sharp reaction from one of the law’s other sponsors, Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), who sits on the health committee. "I am a sponsor and I didn’t agree to this," he said.

"This is one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country," said Whelan, a prime sponsor of the measure. "Reasonable regulations are what we anticipated."

"Can we agree that this is medicine?" he asked Alaigh.

The answer was not so clear. As a scientist and physician, Alaigh said she depends on rigorous, double-blind studies to determine what is or is not considered medicine. "And I don’t see those studies yet," she said.

Democrats on the Senate panel also raised concerns about doctor participation. They worried aloud that the department was making it too difficult for doctors to sign up for the program; currently 73 doctors from 19 counties have signed on. The department has also received 21 applications from groups seeking to establish alternative treatment centers.

"We are setting a standard that would make it extremely, extremely difficulty for a physician to sign up for the program and to practice medicine in the best interest of their patient," said Weinberg, the health committee chair.

But the administration’s caution was praised by at least one member of the panel.

"We don’t want to be California," said Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean). "California has taken it a step beyond reasonable."

Following the hearing on Monday, members of the public have until April 23 to submit written comments to the health department. Officials will then prepare a response and may make changes, if needed.

If the rules are implemented, New Jersey would be the 14th state to allow medical marijuana use.

Lilo Stainton has covered local, state and national news for New Jersey newspapers for more than a decade, first as a reporter for the Home News Tribune and then as a statehouse correspondent for Gannett’s chain of six daily newspapers. She has written about politics and policy of all kinds, with a focus on healthcare. Her work has received numerous awards and she was a regular guest on NJN’s Reporters Roundtable TV program. Lilo took a break from journalism to serve as press secretary to former Governor Jon S. Corzine and as communications director at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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