TRENTON – The New Jersey Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas P. Scutari and Senate Health Chairman Joseph Vitale to amend the state’s medical marijuana law in order to promote access to children with severe illnesses. The bill was approved by a vote of 25-13, and awaits a final vote by the Assembly.
The bill was introduced in response to efforts by a Union County couple to obtain what could be life-saving treatment for their 2-year-old daughter, who is suffering from Dravet syndrome, a severe and rare form of epilepsy that anti-seizure medicine does not control. 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 bill would require that minors be subject to the same requirements as adults to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. The measure is intended to remove barriers to treatment faced by children such as 2-year-old Vivian Wilson, who had her first seizure at two months old.
“The medical marijuana program is intended to help ease the suffering of our residents caused by these kinds of debilitating conditions. That this family, which has received a recommendation from a doctor, is unable to obtain care for their child is unacceptable,” said Scutari (D-Union). “We have to make sure that our program is not so restrictive that those who are eligible for the program and have received a referral to participate are prevented from getting the treatment they deserve. That includes children suffering with a debilitating medical condition, or any illness that is covered by our law.”
Signed in January 2010, the state’s medical marijuana law – designated the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act – created one of the strictest programs in the nation. Regulations adopted by the state Department of Health and Senior Services and the Board of Medical Examiners further restricted the state program. The bill would preempt regulations adopted by the state Board of Medical Examiners in October 2011 which require that a physician seeking to authorize the medical use of marijuana by a minor obtain written confirmation from a pediatrician and a psychiatrist establishing, in their professional opinions, that the patient is likely to receive therapeutic or palliative benefits from the medical use of marijuana.
The bill (S-2842) would require that minors be subject to the same requirements as adults when seeking to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program, except 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. Currently, adults are required to obtain certification from a physician with whom they have a bona fide physician-patient relationship, meaning the relationship has existed for at least a year, the physician has seen the patient for the debilitating medical condition on at least four occasions or the physician assumes responsibility for providing management and care of the patient’s debilitating medical condition after a review of medical history and physical examinations.
The legislation would also permit the distribution of medical marijuana in dried form, oral lozenges, topical formulations, or edible form, or another form permitted by the Commissioner of Health. Current regulations prohibit marijuana from being dispensed in the edible form, which in some cases may be the most appropriate form for a young child to receive treatment. Additionally, the bill would remove restrictions on the number of strains of marijuana that can be cultivated by alternative treatment centers under the program.
“No one who is suffering with a debilitating illness should be denied relief from their pain and suffering if assistance can be provided, and that is especially true for a young child,” said Vitale (D-Middlesex). “The regulatory hurdles the state has created are tantamount to withholding treatment altogether, which is not the kind of compassionate care that we expected to be provided under the law. This measure will ensure that children with severe illnesses have access to appropriate treatment, while still ensuring that protections are in place so that our program remains secure.”
To date, no minors have received medical marijuana through the program, in part because of a lack of formal recommendations by pediatricians and psychiatrists for the medical use of marijuana by minors. The Star-Ledger reported that Vivian Wilson, the 2-year-old from Scotch Plains, met the eligibility requirements for the state’s medical marijuana program but that her parents, Brian and Meghan Wilson, have been unable to obtain the certification from a psychiatrist necessary for their child to participate. The family has already taken numerous steps to help prevent seizures. According to the report, the child wears an eye patch during the day and is kept from direct sunlight; she is on a special diet and medication; and striped or brightly colored clothing or objects have been hidden or removed from the home. The family is seeking treatment for their daughter with marijuana that is provided in capsule form or added to food, which has proven effective for children in other states. The legislation is intended to help facilitate access to potentially beneficial treatment for children in New Jersey with Dravet Syndrome and other debilitating conditions.
Scutari was the prime sponsor and Vitale a cosponsor of the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, which was signed into law in 2010.
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