Measure Inspired by Two-Year Old Scotch Plains Girl’s Struggle
The General Assembly on Monday capped a lengthy legislative process to ease access to New Jersey’s medical marijuana program for children with severe illnesses by approving legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Linda Stender and Reed Gusciora to amend the state’s medical marijuana law.
Stender first proposed the bill (A-4241), along with her district counterpart Senator Nicholas Scutari, in response to efforts by a Union County couple to obtain what could be life-saving treatment for their two-year old daughter who is suffering from Dravet syndrome, a severe and rare form of epilepsy that anti-seizure medicine does not control.
“For Vivian and many children like her, marijuana may be the only treatment that can provide life-changing relief,” said Stender (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union). “As a state, we should not stand in the way of that and today’s vote is definitely a step forward. While not the ideal legislation I would like to have seen enacted, there are a number of components in this bill that will still make this program work better for children who are desperately in need of relief.”
The final version of the bill approved today by a vote of 70-1-4 will allow edible forms of marijuana to be available to minors only and remove the limit on the number of marijuana strains that can be cultivated – currently three – to allow for strains with a low amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of the marijuana plant that provides euphoria. Under the bill, edible forms of medical marijuana to be made available to minors include tablets, capsules, drops or syrups and any other form authorized by the commissioner of the Department of Health.
“Since this law was first drafted we have tried to live up to its name by making sure that the ‘compassion’ in the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Law remains in tact,” said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon), one of the lead sponsors of the original law creating New Jersey’s medical marijuana program. “Whether it’s children, senior citizens, or anyone suffering from a debilitating or life-threatening illness, we want to make sure that relief is provided in the manner most suitable to the individual while remaining within the strict confines of the law. This bill will help make the program work better for children in a number of ways, however, I’m disappointed that the Governor decided to strike out several components that would have helped make life easier for both sick children and the elderly.”
Vivian’s story is heartbreaking and I sympathize fully with her parents’ efforts to provide her with as much comfort and relief as possible. That was intended to be the essence of our Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana law,” said Stender. “This measure will help ensure that New Jersey residents who are suffering with severe illnesses, regardless of age, are not prevented from accessing medicine the law was intended to provide. This is the compassionate thing to do and the right thing to do.”
To date, no minors have received medical marijuana through New Jersey’s program, in part because of a lack of formal recommendations by pediatricians and psychiatrists for the medical use of marijuana by minors.
Stender’s and Gusciora’s legislation was intended to remove this barrier to treatment faced by children such as Vivian who had her first seizure at two months old. Under the original version of their bill passed by the legislature in June, minors would have been subject to the same requirements as adults to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program, meaning a psychiatrist’s recommendation would not be required, thereby easing access for children to participate.
Their original bill was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Christie in August, at which time the governor reinserted the previous requirement that minors must continue to obtain formal recommendations from both a pediatrician and a psychiatrist in order to participate in the medical marijuana program.
“It saddens me that parents will continue to have to find a psychiatrist to approve the participation in the program unless the child is mentally ill,” added Stender. “In the case of Vivian it would have made more sense to require a neurologist given the nature of her disease, not a psychiatric evaluation. This shows an unwillingness on the governor’s part to trust parents of a sick child, in consultation with their physician, and only serves to create a contrived need that causes further roadblocks and expenses. Once again the Governor has chosen to protect his future aspirations over helping his constituents.”
The bill approved today will also require that a parent or guardian must receive an explanation of the potential risks and benefits of the medical use of marijuana, and must grant permission for the child’s medical use of marijuana.
Marijuana has been helpful in preventing most seizures in a number of children with the illness in Colorado and California, according to The Star-Ledger, which first reported the family’s story.
The legislation is intended to help facilitate access to potentially beneficial treatment for children in New Jersey with Dravet Syndrome and other debilitating conditions.
The measure was also approved by the Senate several weeks ago and now heads back to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law.