Stopping Medical Marijuana Won’t Make Chris Christie President

Why the governor should sign New Jersey's newest medical marijuana bill.

Since then-governor John Corzine signed it into law in January 2010, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program has been a thorn in Chris Christie’s side. It’s been ignored, railed against, tacitly allowed, barely instituted and red-taped to death, all within the span of Christie’s term in office, and all by the man himself. Christie’s reluctance was reiterated again this week, with the governor — presidential hopes for 2016 clearly in mind — saying again that he won’t have Jersey end up like Colorado or California. At this point, though, the comparison would be a compliment.

“I am not going to turn this into a place where people fly into Newark airport, drive someplace, claim to have a migraine from a quack doctor and get high. That’s not happening in our state. That’s happening, by the way, every day in Colorado and California, and I’m not going to permit it in this state, not as a former federal prosecutor,” he said at an unrelated Seaside event on Tuesday.

Christie is referring, of course, to the potential passage of S2842, a bill sponsored by state Assemblywoman Linda Stender and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari that received bipartisan support in both chambers of the New Jersey legislature and aims to provide qualified minors with easier access to medical marijuana, among other goals. Under current New Jersey law, minors’ guardians must provide recommendations from three doctors with whom they have a bona fide, established relationship. Adult patients, however, require only one recommending physician.

With Jersey’s medical marijuana program considered one of the strictest in the nation, S2842 also corrects a number of problems through the addition of more treatment centers (two each for north, central and south Jersey), edible forms of marijuana, and the ability to cultivate more than three strains of marijuana. Christie, however, has not said whether he plans to sign the bill, going only so far as saying he has 45 days or more to make his decision regarding S2842’s passage.

That indecision, meanwhile, leaves families like the Wilsons out in the cold. Brian and Megan Wilson’s two-year-old daughter, Vivian, suffers from a rare and resistant form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome. Other medical states, like, say, Colorado and California, have seen a great  response in treatment of the disease in minors with high-cannabidiol (CBD) strains of marijuana, with almost no psychoactive effects. S2842 would both open up the eastern U.S. to high-CBD strains and allow Jersey’s underage patients easier access to treat a slew of diseases known to respond to those strains. Which kind of leaves supporters wondering just exactly what there is to decide about.

But even if, like Vivian Wilson, minors’ parents jump through Jersey’s marijuana card requirement hoops, it’s unlikely that they’ll even be able to get their children their medication. Greenleaf Compassion Center, Jersey’s only operating marijuana dispensary, closed last week for more than two weeks, citing a need to build up a “surplus” of quality medicine — a pattern that the center has apparently been working on developing since opening in December 2012.

GCC had already been canceling patient appointments prior to their current closure, saying that around 10 percent of its crop was “inferior,” with other plants not yielding as much quantity as is ordinarily expected. Should the dispensary get all its medicine in, though, it would still be overwhelmed — it currently serves 150 of Jersey’s roughly 1,000-patient program, and there’s a several-hundred-person-deep waiting list. GCC is so overwhelmed, in fact, that in March it cut its service area to seven counties in north Jersey only, leaving out the rest of the state completely. The next treatment center on deck, Compassionate Care, isn’t scheduled to open at least until the fall.

The effects on Jersey’s medical patients have been drastic, pushing some, like 53-year-old Susan Sturner, underground, and forcing others to go without medication completely. Even if GCC could provide medication to all of its patients, it’s not necessarily a better option: Its prices are averaging out at $600 per ounce — more than double street price, and that’s for legal patients. Sturner, however, has said that she hasn’t been able to get the allotted two ounces per month since March. And all this on top of the center taking two years to open after Corzine signed the medical system into law.

But while patients suffer under arbitrary restrictions and debilitating errors, Chris Christie seems to be keeping his eye on the 2016 presidential race.  He is, after all, the clearest current Republican contender to the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton in the next election. Given that opportunity, 1,000 medical marijuana patients suffering for the appearance of moderate pragmatism might not seem so bad politically.

The governor, after all, has been against the program from the beginning, treating it essentially like an unwanted child dropped into his lap. In March, he told CBS that he’s not trying to sabotage the program — if that were the case he’d “just pull funding from it.” Politically, however, that move would appear callous. Tacitly allowing the program to exist while maintaining a public “hard on drugs” stance is much more middle-of-the-road and secure in assuring a Republican nomination in the coming primary when it comes to the pot issue.

Just like, in some sense, President Obama. But instead of campaigning on a stoner past and a promise to not harass existing medical marijuana dispensaries and then totally not doing that, Christie appears to be withholding his political support on the issue while still allowing the system to exist. Marijuana has been a substantial problem for both of these men, and the way they’ve responded to dealing with it seems to be exactly what Christie is doing with S2842 — virtually nothing, all things considered.

All of Jersey’s medical marijuana program woes can be traced back to the convoluted process of attaining marijuana cards and licenses, a system that Christie stands behind as a way of keeping Jersey out of California and Colorado territory — two states that have virtually revolutionized the way the Western world views cannabis. He stands behind that system so much that he interprets the lack of patients as a “low demand” issue due to a lack of popularity, not strangling regulation. It simply is too difficult and expensive, and that’s the way Christie wants it. That way, there’s a medical marijuana system on paper with no functional risk.

The crux here seems to be that Christie views medical marijuana as a “last resort” for treatment of diseases that ordinarily require extremely dangerous or addictive pharmaceuticals. In that sense, Christie would rather have sick people pursue options they would otherwise not pursue under a medical marijuana system, all over the notion that these people don’t really need weed until they’ve exhausted all other options — even in cases where marijuana works markedly better or carries fewer treatment risks.

But given medical marijuana as an option for treatment, patients should be deciding what is their own personal last resort, be it marijuana or pharmaceuticals. This slow progression we’ve seen — along with the limited qualifying conditions list (14), lack of recommending doctors (221) and limited dispensaries (one) — at the cost of patients’ health for Christie’s potential political benefit no longer seems to be a question of whether or not the governor is impeding what a majority of Jersey wants, it’s how long the state’s pot patients can last under his watch.

With Christie’s signature, reluctant or no, on S2842, they’d probably be able to last a lot longer — an overall goal for most marijuana patients in general. That Jersey might end up more like California or Colorado because of it is a blessing for the Garden State, even if Christie might see such a fate as a threat to his 2016 run.