Tuesday, December 16, 2008

NJ Senate committee considers legalizing medical marijuana

From The Press of Atlantic City in N.J.:

A state Senate committee discussed legislation Dec. 15 that would make New Jersey the 14th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

If Senate Bill 119 eventually is signed into law, patients with debilitating illnesses, including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, would have access to marijuana to relieve their pain if prescribed by a doctor.

The bill is sponsored by state Sens. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union, Somerset, Middlesex, and Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.

The legalization of marijuana - considered the single most abused illicit drug in the United States by the National Institute on Drug Abuse - for medicinal purposes already has happened in 13 other states, most recently Michigan.

Jim Miller, president of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, has fought tirelessly for marijuana legalization. His wife, Cheryl, lived with multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease that blocks the brain from communicating with other parts of the body, for 32 years before dying in 2003 at age 57.

"I got to see on a regular basis what life was like when she didn't take (medical marijuana)," Miller said. "And I saw the brief periods of relief when she did."

Marijuana, or cannabis, has been used in medicine since the 19th century. A study by the National Institute of Medicine in 1999 concluded that "the accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation."

But the Food and Drug Administration believes otherwise. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the most restrictive class of drug. The FDA does not approve of the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Miller said he constantly gets calls from people in the kind of pain his late wife experienced, and he tries to provide the drug for them whenever he can.

"I risk arrest to help people whenever I can," Miller said. "It's a sad state of affairs when I can take care of these people and hospice can't."

The concern for many is that even with many restrictions to access, others could get a hold of marijuana and use it - and abuse it - for recreational purposes. It's a behavior already observed in the abuse of alcohol and certain prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, both of which are legalized.

Despite the potential for harm, anti-drug groups are hoping decisions will be made following sound medical advice.

"We believe that this is a medical issue and that it should be handled by medical professionals," said Angelo Valente, the executive director of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.