Medical marijuana waits for Christie’s return

TRENTON – A meeting of stakeholders in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program was canceled earlier this week, with state officials still weighing a response to the federal memo they received two weeks ago. Gov. Chris Christie returns from his trip out West next week and is expected to make an announcement on the issue thereafter.

The N.J. Attorney General’s Office is advising Christie on its interpretation of a federal memo that was issued in response to the state’s request for clarity on whether federal agents would consider prosecution of state workers implementing the medical marijuana program.

The U.S. Department of Justice memo never actually answered the question about state workers directly, said one Trenton insider monitoring the situation. In fact, if Christie wanted to stall, he could send a letter thanking DOJ for issuing the memo, but ask for further clarity specific to the state workers, said the source.

If the state decides to undo the medical marijuana program based on concerns over possible prosecution of state administrators, several parties could bring lawsuits, including legislators, authorized distributors, and advocacy groups for patients awaiting legalization.

The DOJ memo was non-definitive and provided little clarity in general, said several sources, stating the case for prosecution then making the counter-argument for limited prosecution and conservation of resources.

The Governor’s Office said Christie is likely to address the issue at some point after his return to Trenton Monday morning. While not providing any hints as to what the governor’s decision would be, his office said that asking Justice for a definitive answer on state worker prosecution could be an option.

Deputy Majority Leader Reed Gusciora, (D-15), of Princeton, sponsored the final compromise on the “compassionate care” law – against the wishes of Democratic upper chamber sponsors – which was more restrictive in the potency of the marijuana and more limited in the number of dispensaries.

Today, his office released a “Cannabis Countdown” press statement, noting 15 days ago on July 1, the state’s first medical marijuana dispensaries were slated to open.

“Cancer patients who are being treated for chemotherapy and experience nausea will continue to suffer,” Gusciora said. “While I can understand the Governor’s reservations with the implementation of the program, it is his duty to fulfill the legislative intent. I negotiated with him in good faith to get the program up and running. I hope that he lives up to his side of the deal.”

It’s not Christie’s law; it was approved by former Gov. Jon Corzine before he left office, although the new governor had a prominent role in the adoption of the regulations that work as guidelines for the program, considered the most restrictive in the nation.

Washington, D.C. just approved its law, joining 16 states that have legalized medical marijuana to different degrees. Only four states, including New Jersey and Rhode Island, have dispensaries that are regulated by the state government. Also New Jersey has strict potency limitations and requirements for all excess plants to be turned over to the state police for destruction.

“Even (U.S. Attorney General Eric) Holder views New Jersey as a model,” a Trenton source said, based on discussions had with law enforcement representatives.

Federal agents in Montana raided more than two dozen businesses, residences, and warehouses in March, and recently brought indictments against a half dozen marijuana providers. Sources in New Jersey said the Montana law is as unrestrained as they have seen: no limit on amount of marijuana grown, no regulations for destruction of unused plants, no regulated dispensary system.

The most recent DOJ memo, penned by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole, said the government will prosecute “large-scale, privately operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers,” which was the case in Montana, where they also found large caches of weapons in one of the warehouses.

One source said the Cole memo may have been crafted – less for New Jersey officials – and more for Montana law enforcement who sought prosecution of egregious abuses of the new program based on federal laws.

Gusciora is sponsoring another bill that would decriminalize possession of  less than 15 grams of marijuana. The law would not apply to patients with a medical marijuana prescription, but the intent is to lighten the criminalization of the drug in general to save time, money, and other resources better spent on large-scale pot prosecution. He is joined as sponsor by the libertarian-right Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, (R-25), of Morris Township, although no upper chamber version of the bill has found a sponsor and is considered unlikely to progress in the near future.

Medical marijuana waits for Christie’s return