History was made back in January 2010 when the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Corzine. Since that time, the Garden State's medical marijuana program has registered well over 7,000 patients, all of whom use the drug to treat symptoms of various medical conditions from cancer to multiple sclerosis.
While this recognition of the medicinal value of marijuana and the accompanying large patient registry would seem to suggest that the state has adopted a laissez-faire approach toward the drug in general, this hasn't necessarily proven to be the case. Indeed, the drug remains classified as a schedule I drug under state law.
In general, the state's drug classification system closely parallels that of the federal government, such that a schedule I drug is recognized as having no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. Perhaps not surprisingly them, convictions for drug crimes involving schedule I drugs typically result in far more serious penalties.
Interestingly enough, this seemingly contradictory stance -- allowing medical marijuana yet handing down the most severe penalties to defendants caught with the drug -- was recently at the heart of oral arguments held before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court just a few weeks ago.
The case in question involves a New Jersey man who was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for marijuana trafficking under the state's "drug kingpin" statute back in the early 90s. Three years ago, he petitioned the state Division of Consumer Affairs to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous schedule II or III drug, citing studies demonstrating that previously held views about the drug's danger were now unfounded.
After the petition was denied, an appeal was filed on his behalf and on behalf of a teenager who uses marijuana to treat epilepsy by two attorneys who took the case pro bono.
Here, they argued to the three-judge panel that it was highly illogical for the state to permit the longstanding existence of a medical marijuana program, while at the same time classifying the drug as a schedule I drug.
In response to arguments by the State Deputy Attorney General that other states along with the federal government have consistently opposed reclassification of marijuana, the attorneys made two compelling arguments.
First, they pointed out how state law dictates that the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs must review classifications of controlled substances and make the necessary changes "when appropriate," and, in doing so, avoid giving deference to the federal classification scheme.
Second, they highlighted a 1986 decision by Supreme Court of New Jersey, New Jersey v. Tate, which vested the state with the authority to pursue reclassification if "scientific developments and advances in knowledge ... ultimately render marijuana's Schedule I classification inappropriate."
It will be interesting to see how persuasive these arguments prove and whether the state is prepared to introduce an element of consistency to its treatment of marijuana.
Stay tuned for updates ...
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