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Gov. Christie Reverses Course on Medical Marijuana

Christie denies that his opposition to the NJ program was partisan or political.

Gov. Chris Christie has come back from his two-week vacation with a change of heart -- at least in one respect. The governor announced yesterday afternoon that he will no longer stand in the way of New Jersey's medical marijuana law.

His decision to allow the program to move forward was welcomed by the law’s legislative sponsors, outside advocates and patients.

Christie said he made up his mind after studying various documents, including a recent federal memo that said it would not be an "efficient use" of federal funds to prosecute cancer patients.

Christie also reviewed the New Jersey program's rules and regulations, which many believe are the nation’s most restrictive, as well as a transcript of a 2008 interview with then-candidate Obama who said, as president, he would not use the Justice Department to counteract state laws on medical marijuana.

The governor has said for months that, as a former U.S. Attorney, he was concerned that federal officials might arrest and prosecute patients, growers and even state officials who were involved in the medical marijuana program. But after further consideration, he changed his views.

"I don’t believe the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey will expend what are significantly lessening resources…. going after dispensaries in New Jersey, or the Department of Health [which oversees the program], or other state workers who are implementing this program," the governor said, stressing that this assessment was based on his own experience -- not any conversation with the current U.S. Attorney, Len Fishman.

“It’s a risk that I’m taking as governor,” he continued, “but it’s a risk worth taking to alleviate the pain people are suffering from in this state.”

A Public Relations Nightmare

One of the law’s key sponsors, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), suggested that the governor might have also come to recognize that denying care to cancer patients could become a "public relations nightmare." The Assemblyman and others have suggested that Christie was delaying the implementation to appeal to his conservative Republican base. Gusciora scoffed at the notion that federal officials would raid New Jersey’s dispensaries, suggesting "the Mets have a better chance of winning the World Series."

“The whole purpose of the program was for truly ill people to get relief,” Gusciora said, underscoring how the law was carefully designed to prevent widespread abuse seen in other states, like California.

But Christie, at his news conference, insisted his goal has always been to provide "compassionate care, not to "play politics." Others, like Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that it is an issue that crosses party lines.

"It is not usually a partisan issue," agreed Patrick Murray, Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, adding that most polls show fairly widespread support for tightly administered programs. "It was interesting that Christie was dragging his heels because there wasn’t any public outcry against the law."

Moving Ahead

Regardless of the motivation, the governor’s decision breaks a months-long legal log-jam and allows the program to move forward. Operators of the six dispensary sites, which are spread throughout Northern, Central and Southern Jersey, have kept their operations largely on hold since they were named by the state in March.

Christie said Tuesday he has ordered the Department of Health to reach out to each of the sites and find out exactly when they can be ready and open for business. He said that once state officials have that information they can set a schedule to allow distribution to begin, but given the fact that these dispensaries are eager to start doing business, several observers said sales should begin fairly soon.

New Jersey’s law, signed by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine on his last day in office, legalizes possession and use of marijuana by patients with a limited number of diseases, if they have a prescription from a doctor registered with the state program. It also protects from state prosecution the operators of six state-licensed sites that will grow and sell the drugs. But marijuana remains an illegal drug in the eyes of the federal government – and therefore subject to federal prosecution -- even as 16 states, including New Jersey, have adopted laws allowing for its use in certain medical situations.

"We are absolutely thrilled that the governor has decided to move forward with the program," said Scotti. Elise Segal, a patient with multiple sclerosis, agreed in a statement released by the group, adding, "I have nothing but feelings of gratitude toward [the governor] and his administration."

Matthew Kassel is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

Lilo H. 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. 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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