Despite differences with Gov. Chris Christie over how to make medical marijuana more accessible for sick children, the Legislature is set to increase the variety of plants that treatment centers can grow and dispense and to let children take an ingestible form of medicinal pot.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote Monday to adopt the alterations Christie made to the bill,and A-4241, when he issued a conditional veto of it last month.
Bill sponsor Linda Stender (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union) criticized the veto, but has decided to support the new version. The primary change that Christie made was removing part of the bill that would have allowed children to havefor marijuana.
Some families and advocates have said the state regulation requiring children to have the approval of both a pediatrician and a psychiatrist is onerous. Adults only need one doctor registered with the medical marijuana program to prescribe the substance.
“I was very disappointed with the doctor requirement. I think it’s absurd to say that a sick child with epilepsy must see a psychiatrist,” Stender said. If the administration wants a second medical opinion, it should be from a specialist treating the condition the child’s condition, she added.
But Stender said she decided to support the bill after speaking with Brian and Meghan Wilson, whose 2-year-old daughter Vivian suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy.
Removing the limit on the number of available strains of the marijuana plant “is a good step in the right direction,” Stender said.
Officials with the organizations that plan to operate alternative treatment centers providing medical marijuana have said they will indeed grow more strains, which have been limited to three types of plant per center.
Yael Galanter, attorney for Woodbridge-based Compassionate Care Centers of American Foundation Inc., said his organization already is growing a fourth strain with a low amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of the marijuana plant that provides euphoria.
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“It’s a valuable and needed change,” Galanter said of the bill, adding that his organization commends Christie for agreeing to the changes.
Galanter also said that children would benefit from having the substance available in an ingestible form, noting that many children cannot smoke.
As for the requirement that a psychiatrist see all juvenile patients, Galanter said: “That type of decision is above my pay grade. Our job is to comply with whatever the state law is.”
Christie has publicly expressed reservations about medical marijuana, which was legalized before he became governor, but he said that parents and not government regulators are best suited to decide how to care for their children.
“Now, based on the state’s experiences designing and implementing this new and novel program, certain limited modifications are appropriate,” Christie wrote in his conditional veto statement. “Our regulations should address the needs of all qualifying patients, both minors and adults, while continuing the necessary safeguards from abuse, addiction, and unforeseen harm.”
Jennie Stormes, whose son Jackson has used medical marijuana to reduce his symptoms from Dravet syndrome, said her response to the final bill was “hopeful but guarded,” since families will still have to seek approval from multiple doctors.
“I do think it’s progress, it’s not as much progress as we had hoped for,” Stormes said. “I applaud the senators and everyone in moving forward with this and not making this a political issue.”
She said officials with the Woodbridge center have indicated that they will provide a marijuana strain that will be suitable for her son, but she is taking a cautious position until that occurs.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a medical marijuana advocacy group, also supports the new bill.
“We would have preferred that the governor signed the bill as is but nonetheless this is a huge step forward,” state director Roseanne Scotti said. She noted that state regulators will continue to limit the amount of THC available in the substance, but said increasing the number of strains – each with a unique chemical composition – will help a wider variety of patients.
“If you’re limited to three strains, I think you’re going to go for what most people need,” potentially leaving some patients’ needs unaddressed, Scotti said. “I think now the programs won’t have to make those tough decisions.”
Stender said that while the law is supposed to go into effect immediately, she has asked for more information about the timing.
The law legalizing medical marijuana “got totally sandbagged by a regulatory process that went on far too long,” Stender said, adding that while she doesn’t expect that to happen again, she will be watchful.
“We know that there are people who are waiting and trying to gain access because it will improve their quality of life, because it will relieve their symptoms from some very bad diseases.”