Advocates for medical marijuana, long at odds with Gov. Chris Christie, were fuming at him Friday, a day after he said he's waiting for assurances from federal authorities that people involved in state-sanctioned sales of pot to patients won't be prosecuted.
Activists say the state is unlikely to get such blanket assurances from the U.S. Department of Justice — and that the people who want to go into the business realize they'll be violating federal law. New Jersey officials have requested information from the federal government on whether people involved in a state-sanctioned medical marijuana business could be prosecuted. So far, there's been no response.
"Gov. Christie is personally holding this law back," said Chris Goldstein, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana for New Jersey.
The state Health Department, which is overseeing the medical marijuana program, did not elaborate Friday on Christie's statement. "We are continuing our work on the program, but are waiting for clarification on the application of federal law," Health Department spokeswoman Donna Leusner said in an emailed statement. She said she would not answer additional questions on the status of the program.
Supporters of legalizing the drug had already planned a rally Friday at the State House to protest the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of a war against drugs. But Goldstein said there's more to protest after Christie's comments Thursday evening on the New Jersey Network's "On the Line" television program. Christie, a Republican and former federal prosecutor, said he's specifically concerned that regulators might be prosecuted for following his directions if the medical marijuana program is started.
Only a half-dozen activists showed up at the rally.
In one of his last acts before leaving office in January 2010, Christie's predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, signed a bill to establish a medical marijuana program in New Jersey.
Advocates for the law say that Christie, who says he supports the concept but dislikes some of the details, has delayed implementation.
Regulations for the program have been drafted but are not yet finalized. Advocates don't like the proposals, either, in part because they would limit the potency of pot available to patients. Lawmakers have also considered trying to invalidate the regulations, saying they don't meet the legislative intent of the law.
Six alternative treatment centers and nonprofit groups have been licensed to grow and sell pot to patients with conditions including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. Advocates say about 250,000 people in New Jersey have the conditions that could qualify them for medical marijuana recommendations.
But without regulations in place, it's looking less likely that the state will have legal marijuana sales sometime this summer, as Christie's administration previously said it would. Representatives for the licensed organizations, which have been reticent to speak with the media, did not return messages left Friday morning.
At Friday's rally, Stephen Cuspilich, a 48-year-old Crohn's disease patient from Southampton, said he doesn't believe medical marijuana will be available unless Christie is forced to implement the program — perhaps by a court. For him, it's a practical concern. He says that by using marijuana to treat his symptoms, he can avoid taking seven pharmaceutical drugs, some of which have severe side effects. But his "organic medicine," as he calls it, is illegal. "I still risk going to jail," he said.
Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey Director Roseanne Scotti said the state should move ahead because of how medical marijuana works elsewhere. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing medical marijuana. But the laws have not been implemented in a handful of them.
"No state worker has ever been prosecuted. No state worker has ever been threatened with prosecution," Scotti said. "They would never prosecute state workers, because honestly, it would be terrible PR for the federal government."