New Jersey state lawmakers have passed legislation to make it easier for minors to receive medical marijuana, setting the stage for a potential showdown with Gov. Chris Christie (R).
The Democratic-controlled state Assembly on Monday signed off on the legislation that would put the number of doctor approvals that minors need for access on par with the requirement for adults. In addition, edible forms of medical marijuana would become available to make it easier for children to use the drug. The bill had previously passed in the Democratic-controlled state Senate and now heads to Christie, who has expressed concern about it. The legislation received bipartisan support in both legislative chambers.
"We have to trust families that are working with their doctors and trying to help their children," state Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Scotch Plains), a co-sponsor of the legislation, told The Huffington Post.
She said the bill provides access to treatment that some families need. "And that seems like a very reasonable place for us to be," she said.
The bill would alter three restrictions that current New Jersey law places on medical marijuana. First, it would reduce from three to one the number of doctors from whom a minor needs approval and remove the requirement that one doctor be a psychiatrist.
Second, the bill would permit access to edible forms of medical marijuana, which is not allowed now. According to Stender, it is difficult for young children to inhale marijuana and dangerous for them to use a lozenge form.
Third, the bill would lift restrictions that permit only three strains of the drug to be grown in New Jersey for medicinal purposes.
Stender said that the state's original medical marijuana law, signed in January 2010 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine (D) on his last full day in office, was a cautious bill, and she said that legislators did not foresee the obstacles that certain families have been facing. According to Stender, the law did not call for three physicians to approve minors' access -- a restriction that was tacked on during the regulatory process. As the new governor, Christie put the medical marijuana program on hold until July 2011. Some activists blame him for strict regulations that make it difficult and expensive for patients to access medical marijuana in New Jersey.
"The structure was made more difficult than it needed to be," Stender said. "The requirement for additional physicians not only creates extra hurdles but extra expense."
The new legislation was inspired by Vivian Wilson, a 2-year-old who suffers from Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Wilson's family -- who are constituents of Stender and her bill co-sponsor, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) -- have hit obstacles in obtaining psychiatric approval, while the strain of marijuana that would help her, according to the family, is not grown in New Jersey. Children with Dravet Syndrome in other states have benefited from medical marijuana.
At least 15 states and the District of Columbia allow minors to access medical marijuana, all requiring some form of parental consent, according to Karmen Hanson, health policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five states require two doctors to approve access to medical marijuana for children. Massachusetts mandates that one of the two doctors is a pediatrician.
The New Jersey bill now heads to Christie, who has indicated that he is inclined to veto the measure. The legislation received 55 votes in the Assembly, just one more than needed to override a potential veto, and 24 votes in the Senate, three shy of the number needed for an override. Moreover, GOP lawmakers have rarely defied Christie since the governor took office in 2010.
But Stender remains hopeful.
"I'm hoping the fact that this had strong bipartisan support in both houses when it passed is an indicator that the administration is going to evaluate it based on the merits and hopefully sign the bill," she said. "I don't agree with [Christie] on a lot of things. I hope that we're gonna agree on this."