TRENTON, N.J. – Vivian Wilson, who is 2 years old, could use some pot. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn’t sure she should get it.
Christie, a Republican often mentioned as a 2016 presidential contender, is considering whether to sign a law easing access to medical marijuana for toddlers and teenagers. It would put New Jersey among the dozen states that make it easier for youngsters to be treated with the drug.
While New Jersey is one of at least 18 states to authorize medical marijuana use, its rules make it almost impossible for Vivian’s mother, Meghan Wilson, 34, of Scotch Plains, to get the type of cannabis medicine that may help her daughter’s epilepsy.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” Wilson, a consultant who runs clinical trials for drugmakers, said by telephone. Vivian gets seizures from a form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, she said. In Colorado and California, where it’s easier to treat youngsters with pot, afflicted children have improved after receiving cannabis, and some are almost symptom-free, she said.
Democrats who lead the New Jersey legislature have put Christie, a former federal prosecutor, on the spot by sending him the bill easing access to cannabis for children as young as Vivian. It largely aligns the rules for minors and adults.
The governor, who hasn’t indicated if he’ll sign the measure, has said that California’s looser regulations let “potheads” there get the drug with ease. In Los Angeles alone there are more than 100 pot clinics. New Jersey law permits just six dispensaries statewide, while limiting the types of marijuana they can sell and the forms it can take.
Christie’s reluctance to allow ready availability of cannabis led his administration to implement the state’s 2010 medical-marijuana law in a way that made New Jersey’s rules among the strictest in the nation.
While her mother has three doctors who agree Vivian should get a prescription, as the law demands, the rules bar ingested forms of cannabis – the type that may help Vivian. Also, no local dispensary may choose to offer that form of the drug, which contains minimal amounts of mind-altering chemicals.
Doctors may treat adults for illnesses such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis with pot, and about 1,000 patients have enrolled to get it. Prescribing the drug for seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, is allowed only if conventional medicines don’t work. State health officials say 223 physicians are able to prescribe marijuana.
A participating doctor as well as a child psychiatrist and a pediatrician must agree before a minor can get cannabis, under New Jersey rules. The law also presents other hurdles: Patients can’t grow their own, each dispensary can sell just three types of the drug and they must raise it themselves. None may opt to sell the less-psychotropic kind that may help Wilson’s daughter.
Vivian had her first seizure at 2 months, with another before she was 6 months old, Wilson said. Now she has up to10 a day.
“Every seizure is like a punch to the stomach,” Wilson said. “It breaks my heart sometimes, what she goes through.”
Dravet can delay speech and motor-skill development and isn’t easily treated with conventional drugs, according to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Wilson said she hopes to obtain cannabis such as Charlotte’s Web, used as an oil to treat children with Dravet in Colorado and California. Both states make it easier to prescribe marijuana for minors with medical needs.
Paige Figi of Black Forest, Colo., said the cannabis oil from plants bred specifically to treat her daughter’s condition has produced a wondrous transformation. Charlotte Figi, 6, has gone from being wheelchair-bound, with 60 seizures a day, to walking and even laughing with her twin sister, Chase, and brother Max, 9.
“She’s not a patient anymore. She’s just a kid, and that’s awesome,” Paige Figi, 39, said by telephone. At one point, Charlotte was taking seven anti-seizure medications daily and her Dravet symptoms were so severe that she was discharged from the hospital with a “do-not-resuscitate” order, Figi said. After about 18 months of receiving a drop of cannabis oil under her tongue twice a day, Charlotte’s seizures are almost gone.
Charlotte doesn’t get the euphoric “high” that generally comes from taking the drug because the oil contains high levels of cannabidiol, a compound occuring naturally in marijuana, and almost no mind-altering THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, Figi said.
“People just don’t understand quite what we’re doing here, but I wouldn’t put my daughter’s health at risk,” Figi said. “She has a life now.
“Dravet is the worst of the worst,” she said. “These are kids who are suffering – it’s bad.”
Christie maintains that current New Jersey guidelines may be enough for children who need medical cannabis to get it. He told reporters July 2 in Seaside Park that he worries about relaxing the state’s requirements.
“As for children, I am very reluctant . . . to go down this slope,” Christie said. “This is supposed to be a medically based program that is there as a last resort, not as a first resort.”
The measure before Christie would provide more choice by letting dispensary operators cultivate and sell more than three types of the drug, the limit imposed by current law. It would also permit sales of ingestible forms, such as lozenges or oils that are now banned.
“I will look at the bill, my counsel’s office is looking at it now and I’ve got 45 days or more to be able to act,” Christie said July 2. “When I make a decision, I’ll act.”
The Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair was the state’s only dispensary until it closed temporarily last month while it replenishes its supplies. Another, the Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township near Atlantic City, got a permit recently to raise its first marijuana crop. Its store may open in September, the state has said.
While his predecessor, Jon Corzine, D, signed the medical-marijuana measure into law just before leaving office, Christie delayed implementation for almost a year as regulations were set. He whittled away availability of the drug under the statute out of concern that pot may not be safe in all cases and may be especially risky for youngsters.
“The risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia, is particularly high in those who use cannabis and begin using it at a younger age,” Samuel Wilkinson, a resident physician in Yale Medical School’s psychiatry department, said by email. The risk can rise as much as 200 percent, and the affliction can be permanent, he said.
Marijuana “can be a trigger,” said Katrina Gay, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness based in Arlington, Va. , which opposes medical marijuana for children. “There has been no statistically valid study that points to any benefits” of cannabis as a medicine.
For state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D, who led efforts to pass the 2010 law, the current situation needs fixing. He was among the sponsors of the bill before Christie.
“They’ll hand a Percocet to a 16-year-old kid who had knee surgery because he got hurt playing football, but they won’t give him marijuana in a cough drop,” Scutari said, referring to the narcotic prescription painkiller. “We didn’t envision the regulations being so strict that people couldn’t get it.”
While some states such as Rhode Island make it easier to treat minors with cannabis, New Jersey imposes more hurdles than others for youngsters to get the drug. In Connecticut and Delaware, there are no provisions for treatment of children.
Whatever Christie decides, the issue may haunt him if he runs for the White House in 2016, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. While the governor is viewed as a potential candidate, Republican national figures have faulted him for praising President Obama, a Democrat, after Hurricane Sandy and for being too moderate on social matters.
As for Christie’s campaign for re-election in November, Dworkin joined analysts who say whatever the governor does on this measure will have scant influence on state voters.
“Where this issue will come into play with Christie, as it will with many things, is if he runs for president,” Dworkin said. “A strong position on this would help him if he begins to run in a Republican primary.”