TRENTON - Lawmakers debating whether New Jersey should become the 13th state to allow seriously ill people to use marijuana got hung up yesterday on how patients would acquire the illegal drug.

"I think this is a question you should ask your children," Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer) said in response to a question about marijuana's availability. "I don't mean to be flip, but marijuana is out there. Many people obtain it."

However, several lawmakers on the Assembly health panel considering the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act said they would be uncomfortable passing a bill that allows patients to possess marijuana without also providing some way for them to buy the drug.

"We need a reliable source for people to go to," said Assemblywoman Joan Quigley (D., Hudson). "I don't want to send them down behind the local high school to look for weed."

Pharmacies cannot dispense marijuana so long as it remains illegal under federal law. In California, medical-marijuana markets run the risk of being prosecuted under federal law.

Twelve states allow the use of medical marijuana for chronically ill patients.

Under New Jersey's proposal, patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other life-threatening illnesses would be allowed to smoke or eat marijuana or pop marijuana pills to alleviate their symptoms.

The measure would permit certain patients to register with the Department of Health and Human Services to legally possess and use the drug, which has been shown to relieve nausea from chemotherapy, muscle spasms, and chronic pain and to reverse appetite loss.

"It does not make sense for many of New Jersey's citizens to suffer when there is a viable way to ease their pain," said Gusciora, who sponsored the bill.

Gusciora said there is no evidence of increased drug use in the dozen states that already allow medical marijuana.

However, David Evans of the Drug-Free Schools Coalition, said allowing marijuana for medicinal use opened the door to legalization of the drug.

"Open your minds a little here and look to see if there is some other agenda that may be using innocent, honest people to further a political agenda," Evans said.

Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll of Morris County said it is key for doctors to be permitted to use their judgment.

"If you can go to your doctor and get a derivative of the poppy to treat pain, why can't you get a derivative of the cannabis plant to treat your symptoms?" Carroll asked. "If a doctor using his or her best medical judgment thinks marijuana is the best thing for the patient, he or she should be allowed to recommend it."

Medical-marijuana bills have been introduced before in New Jersey but have failed to advance. Yesterday's hearing was informational only; no vote was taken.

A Senate health panel heard from television personality Montel Williams and other advocates two years ago during an information session. Williams, a multiple sclerosis patient and registered medical-marijuana user in California, said he turned to marijuana to relieve debilitating knee and foot pain after trying OxyContin and other drugs to no avail.

Roseanne Scotti of New Jersey's Drug Policy Alliance said most states that allow medical marijuana have fewer than 1,000 patients on their registries.

Like New Jersey, she said, other states are grappling with how to provide patients with access to the drug.

Oregon licenses grow centers, which are authorized to harvest small amounts of the drug for a prescribed number of patients. Rhode Island has introduced a bill to create compassionate-care centers, similar to Oregon's grow centers. New Mexico is considering various options, she said.