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Christie reverse on medical marijuana not enough, says campaigning family

Brian Wilson, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, holds his two-year-old daughter Vivian. Photograph: Geoff Mulvihill/AP

Brian Wilson, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, holds his two-year-old daughter Vivian. Photograph: Geoff Mulvihill/AP

The family of a sick toddler whose illness helped persuade the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, to change his stance on medical marijuana for children have said they will still have to leave the state to save their daughter’s life.

Christie announced on Friday that he planned to lift restrictions on certain forms of the medication, including the high-dose edible marijuana that is needed by Vivian Wilson, a two-year-old fighting Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. The girl’s father confronted Christie at a campaign stop on Wednesday, to complain that the governor’s office was dragging its heels over a decision on a more restrictive bill that was introduced to the state legislature in May.

Brian Wilson said he welcomed Christie’s policy shift to conditionally veto the bill, but that the months before the changes would take effect was time Vivian did not have. “We can’t wait a year before we start treating her,” Wilson told the North Jersey Record.

He said he felt it was “a selfish victory” because Christie appeared to be reacting to his family’s situation, and he was also critical of restriction the governor left in the bill that would require the approval of both a psychiatrist and a physician registered by a state medical marijuana panel before any treatment could be made.

“It makes a lot of headache and heartache for parents to go shopping for doctors who understand anything about medical marijuana to get them to sign up for this,” Wilson said. “For parents who are already going through a lot of trouble just with what their children’s ailments are, they now have to go through this extra stuff you don’t have to go through for any other medical condition or for any other medication.”

Wilson and about 100 supporters effectively ambushed Christie during a rally at a restaurant in the family’s home town of Scotch Plains. The governor appeared flummoxed as Wilson pleaded with him: “Don’t let my daughter die.”

New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Photograph: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Christie had earlier said he was concerned that the easing of restrictions was “going down a slippery slope” and that it would make it easier for medical pot to fall into the wrong hands. On Friday he said he would approve an amended form of the bill if it stipulated that edible marijuana, in tablet or lozenge form, would be available only to minors.

“I believe that the parents, and not the government regulators, are best suited to decide how to care for their children,” Christie said. “Protection of our children remains my utmost concern, and my heart goes out to those children and their families who are suffering with serious illness.”

Vivian Wilson’s condition requires an oil-based strain of the drug, currently banned in New Jersey – medication high in the seizure-reducing component cannabidiol (CBD) and lower in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient that gives users a high. On some days she suffers up to 100 seizures, said her mother, Meghan Wilson. Brian Wilson said Christie’s veto was “a step in the right direction”.

“There’s a lot more parents in New Jersey who are going to have to get into this and they’re going to go through the same problems we did,” Wilson told the Record. “The decision works for us. It just could have been a lot better.”

<p>New Jersey governor confronted by family of two-year-old Vivian Wilson before reversing policy to lift restrictions</p>

Medical marijuana program needs fixes after Christie sabotage | Editorial

Gallery: Gov. Phil Murphy visits Breakwater Treatment & Wellness medical marijuana dispensary

Among Chris Christie’s emotional deficits, the most galling was his bizarre indifference to human suffering, and as proof you only have to revisit how New Jersey’s medical marijuana program stagnated – in every way possible – on his watch.

Throughout his tenure, Christie fought broader access to MMPs, restricted the list of qualifying conditions, resisted dispensary expansion, and, inexcusably allowed children to endure agony because his health department would not approve manufacturing guidelines for edibles.

And then he said these concerns for kids were – wait for it – really just a phony liberal plot to legalize recreational use.

By December of 2013, right around the time his presidential itch kicked in, Christie made this callous proclamation: “I am done expanding the medical marijuana program.” So if you had a toddler with drug-resistant epilepsy or a preteen with autism who got no relief from psychotropics, it was your tough luck.

Thankfully, his successor was only one week into the job when he recognized the need to correct this abject miscarriage of humanity. Phil Murphy’s executive order directed the Department of Health to conduct a 60-day review of our MMP, with an emphasis on how to increase access to it.

Is it necessary? Start with this: New Jersey has 13,200 people with access to the MMP, only five dispensaries, and allows only a dozen conditions to qualify for medical marijuana – and until PTSD was added through legislation reluctantly signed by Christie last year, there had been no additions since the program opened in 2010.

A similar-sized state like Michigan has 270,000 cardholders, hundreds of dispensaries, and a far broader range of maladies that are eligible for cannabis treatment.

That is an absurd disparity, considering there are hundreds of thousands New Jerseyans who suffer needlessly from autism, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette syndrome, migraines, and chronic pain related to skeletal disorders – to name just a few – that still aren’t allowed to obtain medical weed.

But this might be the most vexing number of all: Less than one percent of doctors in our state are willing to write prescriptions for medical cannabis, because “they don’t want their name on a website, and they don’t want to be overloaded with the demand,” as Senate Health Committee chairman Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) explains.

So Vitale is drafting multiple bills to facilitate expansion. One will increase the number and variety of medical professionals (such as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse) who can write prescriptions. Another will allow dispensaries to become for-profit establishments, because their current non-profit status restricts their ability to borrow and expand – and as Vitale sees it, the best solution is for existing programs to open satellite locations rather than increasing the number of licensed dispensaries.

But the most immediate action needed is increasing the number of qualifying conditions. It was last October that the state’s Medicinal Marijuana Review panel studied doctors’ petitions and held two hearings before concluding that 43 more conditions should be eligible for cannabis treatment.

Christie – surprise – tabled it. But the incoming DOH commissioner has until April 23 to act on it.

Experts such as Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance and Ken Wolski of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey also remind us that there is an urgent need to reexamine application as much as access: The regulations must change to allow for adults to use edibles, tinctures, and oils – edibles are currently allowed only for minors, and very limited in availability – and change the amount the patients can receive each month, because in some cases the two-ounce limit is inadequate.

But it’s time for adults to take control of the program. As Murphy put it, it’s time we stopped allowing politics to trump compassion.

Medical marijuana program needs fixes after Christie sabotage | Editorial Gallery: Gov. Phil Murphy visits Breakwater Treatment & Wellness medical marijuana dispensary Among Chris Christie’s