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Philly420: Two bills that would expand N.J. medical marijuana law debated

The New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Services committee considered two bills yesterday that would benefit medical cannabis patients.

The New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Services committee considered two bills Monday that would benefit medical cannabis patients.

The first was S2898 that would allow those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD access to the state program.

Currently only eight conditions, as well as being terminally ill, qualify patients for a registry card.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ) offered testimony in favor of the bill.

"We believe it is a matter of of life and death because 22 [military] veterans commit suicide every day," said Wolski.

A clinical study involving medical marijuana and PTSD should begin in 2016 and is lead by Dr. Sue Sisley. Working with the Multidisciplinary Institute for Psychedelic Studies and the University of Pennsylvania, it is the first to be approved by federal authorities.

Dr. Sisley will administer federally grown marijuana to vets in Maryland and Arizona. Read more about the study here.

Currently, Oregon, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and New Mexico allow PTSD as a qualifying condition.

The Insurance Council of New Jersey testified that they would like an amendment to S2898 to clarify that health insurance providers would not be liable to pay for reimbursements related to medical marijuana if the bill passes.

Yet the NJ Compassionate Use Act already covers this topic.

The law itself says, "Nothing in this act shall be construed to require a government medical assistance program or private health insurer to reimburse a person for costs associated with the medical use of marijuana, or an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace."

Voting on the bill was held for the next committee meeting.

The NJ Department of Health said in April that they were considering adding new conditions to law. The Compassionate Use Act was passed six years ago, and new conditions were supposed to be considered by the NJ DOH at least every two years. Yet panels to consider additional conditions have yet to convene.

Up next was S3162, a bill to provide some level of employment protection for registered NJ medical marijuana patients.

Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), who sponsored the bill, said in a statement, "Medical marijuana should be treated like any other legitimate medication use by an employee."

At issue during the discussion for the bill was the fact that standard urine drug screens do not measure actual cannabis impairment. Instead these tests indicate general marijuana use within the last 30 days. Cannabis remains one of the few substances where reliable standards of testing for impairment do not exist.

Peter Rosenfeld of CMMNJ testified in favor of the bill.

"Patients have to decide between treating with medical marijuana or being employed," said Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld cited several cases of patients being fired that received media attention.

Charlie Davis was a procurement clerk for New Jersey Transit. When his position shifted, he was drug tested and suspended. He was told he would have to enter a drug treatment program and give up using medical cannabis if he wanted his job back. Davis sued NJ Transit.

Don Dezarn was an 18 year employee of Princeton University in the food services department. The Army veteran became a New Jersey medical marijuana patient. When he disclosed that fact to his employer he was suspended and eventually released. Dezarn was cited along side me by federal National Park Service Rangers during the Smoke Down Prohibition protests. He was my co-defendant as we endured a federal trial, each of us for possessing half of a joint. Dezarn and I received the same sentence; two years of supervised probation and a $3,000 fine. Dezarn was allowed by federal probation officials to maintain his status as a medical marijuana patient. Yet, Princeton University cited their dependence on federal funding as their reason for not allowing any of their employees to be a state registered cannabis patient.

Rosenfeld also spoke of his own experience at the hearing. He was a researcher at a company with federal contracts. He chose early retirement instead of possible dismissal.

"The federal drug free workplace policy does not require monitoring of off workplace uses of medical treatment," Rosenfeld testified.

Testifying against S3162 were the N.J. Civil Justice Institute and the N.J. Food Council, both representing the sentiments of employers.

They said that the bill allowing for protections would put employers in a tough position trying to maintain drug-free workplaces.

"There are a significant number of positions where someone using marijuana is not suitable for employment," Alida Kass of the N.J. Civil Justice Institute said.

The bill would also try to eliminate discrimination against job applicants as well as existing employees.

But the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws including federal medical privacy protection laws do tend to apply in that arena. Because federal law still prohibits medical marijuana they do not apply to state level medical cannabis patients.

The representative from the Food Council testified they did not want to have employees operating machinery, climbing ladders or using deli slicers if they were impaired by marijuana.

The Food Council also suggested that low performing employees would seek a medical marijuana card for the sole purpose of bringing a lawsuit to challenge disciplinary action or termination.

S3162 would not supersede language already in the Compassionate Use act regarding workplace accommodations, which essentially means registered patients are not guaranteed that they can keep a position their boss thinks they cannot perform while using cannabis. It also means employers do not need to have a space or time for patients to smoke, vaporize or otherwise consume medical cannabis while at work.

The bill was approved by the committee today and released to the full state Senate.