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Tighter medical-marijuana bill clears panel

A bill to allow the medicinal use of marijuana for seriously ill patients has been tightened to address concerns the drug could become too widely available.

A bill to allow the medicinal use of marijuana for seriously ill patients has been tightened to address concerns the drug could become too widely available.

An amended version of the bill that was approved by the Senate in February cleared the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee yesterday by a vote of 8-1, with two abstentions. Next, Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) will determine whether to post the bill for a floor vote in the Assembly.

If the amended bill clears the Assembly, it would return to the Senate for a second vote because of the changes.

New Jersey could become the 14th state to allow medical marijuana. Gov. Corzine has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

The legislation would authorize the state Department of Health and Senior Services to issue identification cards to qualifying patients who have been diagnosed with a "debilitating medical condition."

Under the amendments, patients and caregivers would not be allowed to grow marijuana at home, but may instead obtain marijuana from authorized nonprofit alternative treatment centers.

The amended bill was not available to the public yesterday, but according to legislative staff, under the changes:

Patients would be permitted to obtain marijuana from the treatment centers via courier or delivery.

Only the physician who is responsible for the ongoing treatment of the condition that calls for medical marijuana could prescribe it.

The definitions of conditions for which marijuana can be prescribed have been tightened.

New limits have been set on the amount of medical marijuana a patient could obtain in one month.

Supporters of medical marijuana have been working to legalize its use for years in New Jersey. This is the furthest such legislation has advanced in the state.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), one of the sponsors of the bill, said New Jersey should not make criminals out of the state's very sick and terminally ill residents.

"It does not make sense for many of New Jersey's residents to suffer when there is a viable way to ease their pain," Gusciora said. "Medical marijuana can alleviate a lot of suffering, and there is no evidence that legalizing it for medical use increases overall drug use."

Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, called the bill's passage in the Assembly committee a victory.

But she was also concerned that the amendments might have tightened controls so much as to restrict access to patients who could benefit. She said she had not seen the amendments as of early yesterday afternoon.

"We are very supportive of having whatever safeguards in place that need to be in place, but our concern is that we don't want the bill so restricted that people can't get access," Scotti said. She said marijuana should be subject to similar restrictions as other legally prescribed medications, such as morphine or OxyContin, but no more.

Scotti said four other states require patients to obtain their medical marijuana from approved dispensaries or co-ops: California, Oregon, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.

Yesterday's hearing before the Assembly health committee drew a number of patients and family members in favor of the bill, with some shedding tears during their testimony.

Opponents, including the state Fraternal Order of Police and the state police chiefs' association, say legalizing medical marijuana could lead to more widespread illegal use of the drug.

John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families, objected to the quick passage of the bill, saying it was rushed through the committee without committee members or the public being able to read the changes.

He also said the decision of whether to legalize medical marijuana should be left to the Food and Drug Administration, not the state legislature.

"The California experience shows clearly that there will be an increase in crime and an increase particularly in the areas in which there are the dispensaries, and more and more municipalities in California are passing local laws prohibiting dispensing facilities in their community," Tomicki said.