Sunday, June 04, 2006

Legalize it? N.J. weighs medicinal marijuana

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When the wave of pain brought on by her multiple sclerosis sets in, Patty Jurick said she only has one thing to turn to for relief.

Problem is, she has to break the law.

"God knows I'm not bragging, and I'm not proud," said the Middlesex County resident, who has been smoking marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of her disease for about a year. "But it comes to the point where I'm going to do what I have to do."

Jurick, 42, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — a progressive illness that has sent her crashing to the floor in physical agony on countless occasions — as a young adult. She said she has tried all of the pain relievers traditional and non-traditional medicine have to offer. But the thing that makes things tolerable and assists with mobility the best, she said, is marijuana.

"You want to call me a drug addict, fine," said the blond-haired Jurick, who must use a wheelchair or walker to get around.

A bill that would legalize medical marijuana — and decriminalize the activities of people such as Jurick — is to be discussed by state legislators on Thursday. Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, head of the Senate health panel, called for the hearing at which experts will speak.

According to the Associated Press, the Assembly has not set any hearings, but Gov. Jon Corzine has previously expressed support for such a law.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said he proposed the legislation a while back, but this will be its first hearing. No vote is to take place.

"This is an enormous first step in starting a dialogue," Scutari said of Thursday's hearing. "Anything that has a potential for controversy takes time."

The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on the upcoming hearing, while several local hospitals did not provide a physician to speak about the matter.

As proposed, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act would apply to people with "debilitating medical conditions" such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV. Qualifying patients would receive a "registry identification card" and would be able to possess no more than six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana.

"I think the bill is a compassionate measure to help people in the worst stages of their life," said Scutari, noting his mother has multiple sclerosis and would likely benefit from the law. "Why shouldn't we do this?"

But David G. Evans, executive director of the Drug-Free Schools Coalition in Flemington, said he has long held an answer to that question.

"What this bill does is provide that somebody can smoke marijuana for a variety of medical conditions when there is no scientific evidence it helps them," he said, adding at least one study shows marijuana can compromise immune systems. "We have to go beyond the emotion and ask what is best for sick people as a whole.

Evans said the legislation carries enormous potential for abuse and does nothing to address concerns such as marijuana quality and dosage.

"I'm not against using any plant as medicine, as long as it goes through the FDA process," he added.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes medical marijuana, according to The Associated Press, while the American Medical Association, National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society and National Multiple Sclerosis Society also do not support it. The National Academy of Sciences, on the other hand, has found that marijuana can help patients with certain debilitating conditions.

And here in the Garden State, the New Jersey State Nurses Association also backs the use of the plant for medical purposes.

"We're saying for a limited number of (situations) . . . it brings patients from having a painful existence to being able to live their lives," said Director Sharon Rainer. "When this is prescribed under controlled circumstances, they do very well."

For example, said Rainer — who is expected to speak at Thursday's hearing — marijuana has been particularly helpful for those with glaucoma.

"Sometimes this is the only thing that really helps in the end," she said.

Supporting the Scutari legislation is simply the right thing to do, said the founders of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana — New Jersey.

"We're trying to remove the sick and wounded from the battlefield of the war on drugs," said Executive Director Ken Wolski. "Why should patients be made to suffer needlessly?"

Co-founder and President Jim Miller has long been an advocate for medical marijuana. His wife, Cheryl, would often ease the pain generated by her multiple sclerosis by eating what he called "marijuana butter."

"It also loosened her muscles . . . to make her therapy more productive," he said of his wife, who died in 2003. "She wouldn't hurt."

Miller sees Thursday's hearing as a major step.

"I would not be surprised if this time next year this was close to being legal," he said.

Which is exactly what people like Jurick are hoping for.

"I'm not a criminal," she said.

By John Majeski


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