Republicans, particularly Tea Partiers, have been going Cookoo for Christie. And why not — Gov. Chris Christie came into office this year and immediately began to deliver on his campaign pledge to tackle New Jersey’s $30 billion deficit. He froze spending with a state of emergency and then cut $10 billion from the state budget. A Republican player and fundraiser from way back, he has been aces in terms of campaigning for fellow Tea Party-endorsed candidates, and most recently on Saturday, won a 2012 presidential straw poll at the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention (one point more than Sarah Palin).
But constitution-minded Tea Partiers who have spent the last year railing against government overreach and state encroachment on civil liberties, should ask why a medical marijuana law that was enacted by a majority of New Jersey’s democratically elected legislature and supported overwhelmingly by its citizens, is being rewritten by Christie’s administration with what seems like a clear aim of smothering it in the crib. While liberty-loving voters inside and outside New Jersey are no doubt bedazzled by his willingness to cut taxes and hack away at public education funding, just as important is this recent impulse to wield state power like a sword, imposing his own framework fostered as a Bush-appointed U.S Attorney, on the will of the people.
On October 6th, Department of Health Commissioner Poonam Alaigh, a Christie-appointee, unveiled the state’s plan for implementing the medical marijuana program — and it has activists and the law’s authors outraged. While the law itself calls for six “alternative treatment centers” to be placed throughout the state, New Jersey’s draft regulations would allow just two of the centers to actually grow marijuana; just four would be allowed to distribute it. That means just one federal raid could potentially shut down the state’s entire medical marijuana distribution system, leaving patients who would be completely dependent on that system without access to their doctor-prescribed medication.
And that just might be the governor’s intent.
“The entire set of regulations seems to be a political move based on how restrictive you can make a medical marijuana program, rather than a reasonable set of regulations that follows the intent of the law,” activist Chris Goldstein of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana–New Jersey (CMMNJ) says in an interview with Change.org.
Beyond just limiting distribution, the Christie administration is subverting the law in several ways that have nothing to do with science but everything to do with discouraging participation in the program.
The law as enacted — and signed by former Gov. Jon Corzine in January — is already the toughest among the medical marijuana laws passed by 13 other states in recent years. Christie’s heavy-handed modifications are most definitely a reflection of his aversion to it from the start. He already sought to delay the program’s implementation for a year. This might sound like minutes to Washington bureaucrats, but for a patient wasting away from AIDS or suffering from chemo-inducing nausea, it could very well be a lifetime.
Especially when you see the hoops he wants to put up just for a patient to get registered — it’s like a punishment in itself. The feds should be proud at how many disincentives he’s creating for the sick people who want an alternative to powerful prescription painkillers like Oxycotin and Percocet (New Jersey, by the way, is a leading manufacturer of both).
Whoever is involved in this new treatment process — the doctor writing the prescriptions, the caregivers assisting, dispensaries/growers and the patients themselves — had better expect all of the indignities of a bureaucracy designed to make every step more miserable and feel more like a trap. This is how it feels when the state is forced to deliver on a privilege it really doesn’t think you deserve.
But the people do. In this 2006 poll (.pdf) of 700 New Jersey voters, 86 percent said marijuana should be legally available through a doctor’s prescription; the law passed New Jersey’s elected governing body by an bipartisan pair of votes: 48-14 in the General Assembly and 25-13 in the State Senate.
Sure, Christie says he does not want the NJ program to roll out like California, where prescriptions are much easier to get and dispensaries are much more freewheeling and profitable. But let’s be clear here. The NJ law stands, without Christie’s tinkering, as a polar opposite of the California program. For example, the law signed in January clearly states that prescribing doctors must have a “bone fide” relationship with the patient, meaning they have to be treating the disease or condition for which the patient wants the marijuana prescription — no other doctor will do. There will be nothing like “doctor shopping” to get on the registry in New Jersey. And patients must be suffering from one of ten specific diseases or conditions — and the list does not include mental illness. Caregivers and dispensary/grower applicants are fingerprinted and put through extensive background checks, including a review by the FBI.
Under Christie’s proposed rules, however, doctors must also exhaust all other traditional remedies for a patient before signing off on marijuana. The process for getting more conditions or diseases on the official list would be akin to walking through a bureaucratic ring of fire. The regulations for the dispensaries themselves promise to render the facilities no different than Soviet-era grocery stores in Moscow, replete with 24-hour surveillance. The potency of the weed is reduced to 10 percent THC levels.
The whole idea: the state can giveth, but it would be just as happy to taketh away. Not very Tea Party-like. But Christie cut his teeth as a federal prosecutor and has been the target of ACLU complaints before (warrantless cell phone taps). He’s no doubt on the feds’ side on this one. The feds, who out in California are actually bucking an Obama Administration directive to stay off authorized marijuana users and growers’ backs, and are busting them anyway.
This might be the future — citizens work hard to change things democratically, in this case, marijuana reform, and politicians and institutions that don’t like it, get their revenge in the rule-making process, which is not so democratic. Nor very liberty-loving.