Wasting precious time for medicinal marijuana program
Monday, February 28, 2011
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES OF TRENTON
Gov. Christie said, "Every life is precious." Why, then, is he dismissive of the lives of medical marijuana patients in the state? Jennifer L. confronted Gov. Christie at a town hall meeting in Ewing a few months ago. Jennifer explained how she is rapidly losing weight -- literally wasting away -- without reliable access to medical-grade marijuana. It was clear Jennifer could not survive like this. She said she may be dead by the summer without the use of medical marijuana. Yet the governor told Jennifer that he couldn't be concerned about her as an individual when he had an entire state to worry about. Why is her life not precious? It's one thing to have a tough-guy Jersey attitude. It's another thing entirely to be callous to a dying woman.
Jennifer is not alone. The Hospice and Palliative Care Association estimates that there are 30,000 New Jerseyans in hospice, i.e. with medical conditions that will take their lives in less than six months.
All of these patients would qualify for medical marijuana under the terms of the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. Yet it has been longer than a year since the act was made into law and not a single patient has received medical marijuana, not a single distribution center is even close to opening, and not a single legal marijuana plant is yet growing in New Jersey. More than 100,000 patients have died in the state in the last year without having the pain relief and improved quality of life that medically supervised access to marijuana can bring.
Gov. Christie is solely to blame for this unconscionable delay in access to medical marijuana. He has insisted on unworkable and unconstitutional restrictions to the medical marijuana program. These restrictions have outraged patients, advocates and the entire New Jersey Legislature. The Legislature voted in December to give the governor 30 days to come up with acceptable regulations. He failed to do so. The Senate Health Committee held an open hearing on these failed regulations on Jan. 20. No member of the Christie administration showed up at the hearing. Not a single representative from the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), which promulgated these regulations, spoke at the hearing in support of the regulations. The testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to the regulations.
The Senate Health Committee gave the Legislature 20 days to consider the testimony and decide whether to invalidate all or part of the regulations. The proposed regulations will not produce a working medicinal marijuana program. At best, they will provide very few patients with low-quality marijuana at exorbitant cost. Only the illegal drug market will benefit from these regulations. Certainly, qualified patients will not. By invalidating most of the DHSS regulations, the Legislature could easily produce a medicinal marijuana program that allows timely access to affordable, medical-grade marijuana for qualified patients in a safe and secure manner.
Even worse than the waste of legislative time that the governor's animosity to the medical marijuana law has caused is its effect on suffering people. Jeanne M. of North Jersey wrote me to talk about her condition, reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). Jeanne said her left leg from her knee down is "constantly swollen, burning, cold to the touch and purple in color." She often suffers from "electric shocks" in her toes that cause the excruciating sensation of being electrocuted. Jeanne is on heavy doses of morphine as well as eight other drugs. She would like to be included in New Jersey's Medicinal Marijuana Program.
Unfortunately, Jeanne's condition does not qualify in New Jersey. The Legislature gave the DHSS the ability to add qualifying conditions at any time. However, the DHSS has proposed that patients like Jeanne wait a minimum of two years to even submit a petition to try to qualify for legal marijuana therapy in the state. The petition itself would take a minimum of six additional months to be considered and may wind up being denied.
The constant pain associated with RSD is described as "a burning pain, as if a red-hot poker were inserted into the affected area."
I first heard about RSD when R.M. from South Jersey contacted me. R.M. had planned to commit suicide as a result of her RSD and the intolerable side effects of the opiates that were prescribed to treat it. The choices available to her were either to feel constant pain or to feel like a zombie from the medication. R.M. instead planned to commit medically induced suicide. As a last attempt, she wanted to try marijuana because she had read that it was effective for neurogenic pain (the "electric shock" pain that Jeanne described). Moreover, marijuana allowed patients to function normally, once they got used to the psychotropic effects -- the feeling of being "high" or euphoric.
Jeanne M. and R.M. are still years away from safe and legal access to medical marijuana in New Jersey. I was reminded of this when I heard Gov. Christie say, "Every life is precious." If that is so, why are we driving patients to early graves by denying them timely access to a safe and effective medicine -- medical marijuana?
Ken Wolski, RN, MPA, is executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey Inc. (cmmnj.org).