N.J. Medical Marijuana Law Overlooks Many in Pain

State medical marijuana law strictest in U.S., only applies to a dozen diseases.

ByABC News
January 15, 2010, 3:23 PM

Jan. 18, 2010— -- Born without fingers and toes, Jack O'Brien faces crushing neuropathic pain. He can only sustain short walks on his deformed feet and the shooting pain up and down his arms and legs awakens him each morning.

"It's getting worse and worse," said O'Brien, 55, a disabled fishing-boat captain from Laurel Lake, N.J. "I have pain all the time. It's always there. It's constant."

But smoking marijuanain recent years has had a miraculous effect on O'Brien, working almost instantaneously.

"It's like having a valve on the forearm, turning it and having the coolness of relief through my extremities," he said. "I try to walk on these feet and I can go four or five blocks, with my wife. With marijuana, I can go forever."

New Jersey's outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine will sign into law Tuesday the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country, one that won't allow people like O'Brien to access legally the one medication that makes their lives bearable.

The New Jersey Legislature made the state the 14th in the nation, joining Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont on the East Coast, to allow patients access to medical marijuana.

But only about a dozen specific chronic illnesses qualify and O'Brien's neuropathy is not among them. Legislators balked at broadening the law over the objections of advocates who say the measure shortchanges those who have legitimate medical claims. Doctors are divided on the issue.

Unlike free-wheeling laws on the West Coast that allow medical marijuana for anything from anxiety to headaches, New Jersey will only authorize use for people who suffer from diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, Crohn's disease, AIDS, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's disease, but not for chronic pain.

Within about nine months, patients will be able to get a prescription from their doctors to buy up to two ounces a month of marijuana at one of six dispensaries throughout the state.

The law, which passed with bipartisan support -- 48-14 in the General Assembly and 25-13 in the State Senate -- forbids patients from growing their own or using it in public and regulates the drug in the same rigid way as prescribed opiates such as OxyContin and morphine.

Patients will be issued identification cards by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and may designate a registered caregiver to assist in obtaining marijuana.

There is a provision within the bill that other medical conditions could eventually be added with approval from the state Board of Health after its review in two years. But, until then, O'Brien said, he will have to break the law to ease his pain.

"I've never been arrested but I am waiting for it to happen at any moment," he said. "I am sick in my stomach because I don't want to break the law. I am not a criminal and I don't have a criminal record."

State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who was the prime sponsor of the bill, said legislators wanted to take a "measured approach" and didn't want to mirror California, where "every college student qualifies for medical marijuana and they allow patients to grow their own and it seemed to be spiraling out of control."

"I have great empathy for them and don't think we should be turning people with illnesses into criminals," he said. "But, at the same time, we had to do a measured approach. In two years, we will revisit the issue and add ailments. But people have gone without medical marijuana all this time and they will have to wait for another day."