Rich Caporusso says he witnessed the therapeutic power of marijuana about a decade ago, as a cherished family member lay in the hospital dying of lung cancer.
A pot-laced cookie, smuggled into her room, freed his relative from her stupor and enabled her to speak to her loved ones for the final time, said Caporusso, 32.
"It was absolutely amazing to me to see a drug taught to me as a child as killing brain cells was a godsend," the Medford resident said.
Now, Caporusso is in dire need of the drug. The onetime New Jersey corrections officer is on disability, the result of injuries suffered during a 2007 prison melee and his subsequent care. Diagnosed with Crohn's disease and painful muscle spasms, Caporusso is eligible for cannabis treatments under New Jersey's two-year-old medical-marijuana program.
If only that program were in operation.
This month, Caporusso and his physician sued the state Department of Health and Senior Services; Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd; and John H. O'Brien Jr., director of the medical-marijuana program, who they say have "actively interfered with the implementation" of the program and imposed restrictions that have prevented sick people from getting the relief to which they are entitled.
Caporusso and his doctor, Jeffrey S. Pollack, a Mays Landing internist, were joined in the suit by Caporusso's wife.
In his first interview, Caporusso described to The Inquirer the agony of waiting for the treatment he believes will ease his suffering.
State officials have deliberately set up "a million roadblocks" to delay a program that will help the gravely ill, he said, his voice rising as he sat in the Moorestown office of one of his lawyers, civil rights attorney William H. Buckman.
The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, signed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine in January 2010, in his last days in office, mandated the program start by July 1 of that year. Legislators later extended the deadline by three months.
But it wasn't until March 2011 that the health department tentatively approved a half-dozen nonprofit groups to run dispensaries.
So far, none has opened. Only two have been able to obtain sites and all await final state authorization. No marijuana is being grown. And the state has not created required registries of doctors and patients who may participate in the program.
"The department empathizes with those patients who are frustrated," Daniel Emmer, a health department spokesman, said in an e-mail. But it "is building the program from the ground up and balancing the need to create a secure program with the need to provide qualified patients with access to medicinal marijuana."
Emmer went on: "The state is actively moving forward to make this program a reality."
Caporusso disagrees. After a nearly 22-month delay, with no grand openings in sight, the state is creeping along, he says. His suit seeks punitive damages, plus court orders to replace O'Dowd as program overseer and to impose new implementation deadlines.
Thousands of severely ill New Jerseyans are waiting for the drug to become available, according to Anne M. Davis, cocounsel in Caporusso's case and chairwoman of New Jersey NORML, a nonprofit group that promotes the legalization of marijuana.
An estimated 35,000 hospice patients - who have a life expectancy of six months or less - are registered in the state each year, Davis said, and all qualify for medical marijuana under New Jersey's restrictive law. Come July 1, that will be 140,000 people who have died without access to a drug that brings some pain relief without the severe side effects caused by pharmaceuticals, she said.
Caporusso says his problems began in 2007 after his head was slammed to the floor by an inmate at Bordentown's Juvenile Medium Security Facility. The incident left him in intensive care.
He underwent a dozen surgeries for nerve damage in his neck, spine, and arms, and he received about as many injections, Caporusso said. But his muscle spasms and excruciating pain have lingered.
In January 2010, when New Jersey became the 15th state to OK medical marijuana, Caporusso was "ecstatic."
"I thought this was going to be the end of a plethora of pain medications," he said.
His spasms were among the conditions - including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma - the law approved for treatment.
The Food and Drug Administration does not recognize marijuana as a medication. But after publication of several promising studies, the American Medical Association recently recommended the government remove restrictions against it to allow clinical testing.
Doctors have reported that marijuana helps control pain, suppressed appetite, nausea, and muscle spasms in their seriously ill patients.
In summer 2010, Caporusso says his pain worsened. His doctors at the time prescribed him high doses of Vicodin, Lyrica, and Celebrex.
"I could barely move. Basically, they made me into a zombie," said Caporusso, who has a 3-year-old daughter.
After about two months, he was back in intensive care, this time at Virtua Memorial in Mount Holly.
"I was throwing up pints of blood. My stomach was shredded. My liver went into organ failure," Caporusso said.
At one point, he said, a helicopter was summoned to take him to get a liver transplant.
"I was scared to death," said his wife, Jill. "It was a nightmare. . . . All of this could have been prevented," she said, if marijuana had been offered.
Caporusso said the Virtua doctors told him the drugs damaged his organs. He developed Crohn's disease, a chronic disorder of the digestive or gastrointestinal tract, that also is treated with marijuana.
Caporusso said Pollack, his doctor, would like to prescribe him marijuana, but can't. A staff member at Pollack's office told The Inquirer that the physician would not be speaking to the media.
"I'd love for him to stop taking the medications he's on now, because of all the side effects," Jill Caporusso said.
Rich Caporusso believes that part of the problem is Gov. Christie, who he says "has political ambitions and is the golden boy for the Republican Party."
The governor's office did not return e-mails requesting comment, but Christie has said publicly that he opposed the program and would not have signed the legislation.
Christie also has said he may veto a proposed bill that would require towns to approve facilities that meet zoning and planning codes.
"I've called the governor's office but have been blown off as another complaint," Caporusso said. He believes Christie's stance stems from "reefer-madness propaganda" of the '80s that portrayed marijuana as leading to crime and addiction.
"I don't think the present administration wants medical marijuana," said Buckman, his lawyer. "They've bought the 'drug war' illusion that marijuana is a step toward complete legalization.
"There's a good bit of callousness, as well," he said. "They think the societal good of not moving toward legalization is better than relieving any people of agony and pain."
The lawsuit, which was filed in Superior Court in Trenton, also asks the court to overturn a regulation limiting the potency of medical marijuana. The restriction, which is not found in any states with similar programs, is "arbitrary and capricious and unfounded in scientific evidence," the suit says.
Meanwhile, Caporusso said he takes a handful of pills each day to cope, but he is careful to limit the amount to avoid damaging his organs.
"If I don't take the medications, I'm in agony," said Caporusso. "But when I do, I almost die."