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Medical marijuana impact felt as N.J. approves patient use

Connecticut passed a law in 1981 regarding the use of marijuana--defined as a Schedule 1 substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA This law permits a physician to prescribe the illegal drug for use by patients to relieve nausea associated with chemotherapy and eye pressure from glaucoma.  However, despite this law, Connecticut physicians still risk revocation of their license and prison time under a federal law, and no pharmacies in this state have ever chosen to stock marijuana due to the existing federal penalties.

On Monday, the legislature in New Jersey passed a bill making them the fourteenth state in the nation--and first in our region--to legalize the use of cannabis, or marijuana, for medical use by certain patients. The New York Times reported that, “The measure [in New Jersey] — which would allow patients diagnosed with severe illnesses like cancer, AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis to have access to marijuana grown and distributed through state-monitored dispensaries — was passed by the General Assembly and State Senate on the final day of the legislative session. Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign it into law before leaving office next Tuesday.”

“A804/S119 [the NJ law] removes state-wide penalties for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana when a New Jersey licensed Physician recommends it for one of the qualified medical conditions”.

New Jersey joins Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state, all of which have more liberal laws than what was passed in Connecticut. Additionally, Wisconsin and Maryland have laws which allow for reduced criminal penalties if marijuana is used medically. The majority of those who favor such rights do not consider the Connecticut law is not considered reflief from federal restictions.

In April, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that, "marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision”. This statement was made in contradiction to a 1999 findings made by the national Institute of Medicine (IOM) [IOM is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences].

At that time, the FDA referred any discussion of enforcement of marijuana use laws to the DEA, saying that such actions fall outside of the FDA’s regulatory authority. “A Supreme Court decision last year [2005] allowed the federal government to arrest anyone using marijuana, even for medical purposes and even in states that have legalized its use.”

The most recent attempt to expand Connecticut’s laws relating to the medical use of marijuana was vetoed in 2007. Governor Rell said in her veto message at the time that as there are no pharmacies, storefronts or mail order catalogs where patients or caregivers can legally purchase marijuana plants or seeds, ”’I am troubled by the fact that, in essence, this bill forces law abiding citizens to seek out drug dealers to make their marijuana purchases, and there is no provision for monitoring use or proof of its effectiveness.’”

This is not the case in numerous other states across the country; the action in New Jersey has revitalized the debate on marijuana. Presently, Pennsylvania has a bill pending before their legislature on this issue. In California, a state facing a huge fiscal crisis, a legislative committee has passed a bill that would permit marijuana to be taxed; this will continue to wend its way through the legislative process. Washington state is considering a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana possession, manufacturing and sales by all adults. Yesterday, a New York state health committee “passed a bill that would legalize the use of marijuana by patients suffering from life-threatening medical conditions.”  

On the federal level, the U.S. Congress, S.714 (to create a national commission) and H.R. 2943 (which would eliminate numerous federal penalties for the possession of marijuana) have been introduced for consideration.

These proposals are in keeping with the position taken by the Obama Administration. On October 20, 2009, a Washington Post article quoted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as saying, “it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."

Yet there are numerous arguments against the legalization of any marijuana use, even medical. These arguments range from the high potential for abuse of the drug to the criminal elements surrounding it. For example, reported on Wednesday that, “A gunman lay in wait today for a man getting ready to leave for work, then burst into his mobile home and stole medical marijuana grown for the man's wife, who has terminal cancer. The robbery is Oregon City's second home-invasion incident targeting medical marijuana in the past three months.”  

Nearly thirty years after Connecticut's action, the arguments over decriminalization of marijuana, whether for medical use or general consumption, are still alive and well.  This promises to remain a topic of much debate in the coming days.


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