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Senator Scutari’s Remarks To The Senate Health Comittee On S-88, ‘The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act’

“Chairman, members of the Committee, good afternoon.

“I would like to open today by thanking you, Mr. Chairman, for scheduling this informational hearing on my bill, S-88, The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. This is not an issue that is bereft of controversy; medical marijuana has both passionate advocates and detractors. Therefore this hearing marks an important opportunity to better educate the public about a subject that is often obscured by the harsh rhetoric, conjecture, and misinformation that attends such heated debate.

“As a society, we recognize that we owe a special duty to the ill and the infirm. We devote tremendous resources both public and private to discovering cures and treatments for the diseases that torment us – exemplified in this state by the creation of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and the push to establish facilities to promote stem-cell research. We work very hard to raise money and awareness, participating in AIDS walks and Races for the Cure; we wear red and pink ribbons to symbolize our solidarity with those among us who valiantly battle illness.

“When our friends and loved ones are suffering, there is no price we would not pay, no limits to how far we would go to ease their pain, ensure their comfort, and preserve their dignity. This commitment, this deeply held belief in the value of another human life, is the very definition of basic human decency. It is in this spirit that I have introduced the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act.

“This bill promises to create an avenue of last resort for the many New Jerseyans with chronic and debilitating illnesses for whom currently available treatments and medications have sadly proven ineffective. By establishing a policy on medical marijuana that is complete with strict controls and safeguards, we can make another option for pain management available to doctors and their patients.

“I must make it perfectly clear that I do not endorse or support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, nor is this legislation any type of “backdoor” attempt at doing so. As a municipal prosecutor who has done his utmost to enforce New Jersey’s anti-drug statutes, I find such assertions insulting, as well as a cynical attempt to trivialize an important debate.

“My bill is very specific about the persons who would be allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana for strictly medicinal purposes, and the process by which they would become eligible to do so. They would have to demonstrate the presence of a debilitating medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following symptoms: severe or chronic pain, wasting syndrome, severe nausea, seizures, or severe and persistent muscle spasms. AIDS, cancer, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma are all common diseases that can produce such symptoms.

“A physician with whom the patient has a bona fide relationship would have to certify in writing that other available avenues of treatment have proven ineffective, and that patient would find relief through the use of marijuana. The patient would then apply to the state Department of Health and Senior Services for permission to possess a limited quantity of marijuana for medicinal purposes. If the application is approved by the Department, the patient would then be entered into a confidential statewide registry of approved medical marijuana users, and a photo-bearing registration card would be issued. Registrants successfully completing the process would be entitled to possess six marijuana plants or one useable ounce of marijuana with protection from arrest and prosecution by state and local authorities.

“This Legislation was thoughtfully designed to include several important safeguards. The bill explicitly prohibits the operation of vehicles while under the influence of marijuana administered for medicinal purposes. Marijuana could not be smoked on public transportation, school property, in public parks and beach areas, or in correctional facilities. The amount of marijuana a registrant is allowed to posses is strictly limited to prevent abuses of the system.

“Critics will say that by permitting the medical use of marijuana we would be tacitly endorsing its recreational use. This claim is absurd. Cocaine, morphine, codeine, OxyContin, and Percacet are just a handful of the dangerous substances that are both available for medical use and are abused recreationally. Society clearly has the capacity to differentiate between the lawful use of substance in a medical context and its illicit abuse in a recreational one. Eleven other states have medical marijuana laws on the books, and there is no evidence to suggest that it has had any impact whatsoever on the level of recreational use.

“It is not my intention to circumvent the FDA. However, the Agency’s continuing refusal to permit a legitimate clinical trial process for marijuana to move forward, especially in light of mounting scientific evidence suggesting its efficacy, has forced my hand. I do not believe that people suffering in excruciating pain should have to wait for the political winds to change. It is my sincere hope that the FDA will one day reconsider its position, but until then I have seen no evidence that would compel me to believe that marijuana’s detrimental physiological effects outweigh its medicinal benefits for people afflicted with severe and debilitating illnesses.

“I certainly realize that smoked marijuana is not the ideal way to provide relief to those who are suffering. Scientists will keep on searching for better methods, better medicines, and ways to turn chronic conditions into curable ones. My bill will not halt that progress, and I look forward to the day when it is no longer necessary. Unfortunately, that day has not yet come.

“In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine published a report on the potential medical value of marijuana that was commissioned by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The report made a series of recommendations and observations, including a recommendation to conduct clinical trials of smoked marijuana in the hopes of developing better and more consistent cannabinoid delivery systems. Sadly, the Institute’s conclusions have been inexplicably ignored.

“In the report is a passage that I believe perfectly encapsulates the debate over medical marijuana: “Patients who are currently suffering from debilitating conditions unrelieved by legally available drugs, and who might find relief with smoked marijuana, will find little comfort in a promise of a better drug 10 years from now. In terms of good medicine, marijuana should rarely be recommended unless all reasonable options have been eliminated. But then what? It is conceivable that the medical and scientific opinion might find itself in conflict with drug regulations. This presents a policy issue that must weigh–at least temporarily–the needs of individual patients against broader social issues.”

“So the real question that we must answer here is whether or not the state of New Jersey’s interest in arresting and prosecuting chronically and terminally ill persons for the possession of limited quantities of marijuana outweighs the benefit those people would receive from its use. We aren’t talking about thrill-seekers or drug addicts here. We certainly aren’t talking about a population for whom marijuana could plausibly become a gateway drug. We are talking about very sick people who are in desperate need of relief. These people are not criminals, and it does not behoove us as a society to treat them as such.

“I want to thank some of the people who are here today in support of this bill: the McGrath family — Don and Gerry, Montel Williams, Sharon Rainer of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the Academy of Family Physicians, and Dr. John Morgan. I hope their personal stories and professional expertise will shed further light on why this legislation is vital to the wellbeing of many of our fellow citizens.

“I look forward to working with the members of the committee and all my fellow legislators to produce a piece of legislation that balances society’s interest in preventing and reducing illegal drug use with our interest in ensuring that doctors and patients are free to choose the best option for treatment possible. We owe it to our friends, our families and ourselves to establish a humane policy that places a premium on comfort, dignity, and relief. Thank you.”

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