Governor Christie Remarks on Medical Marijuana Program Implementation
“I’m taking that risk because I believe that the need to provide compassionate pain relief to these citizens of our state
outweighs the risk that we are taking in moving forward with the program
as it is set up.”
– New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Transcript of the Governor’s Opening Remarks at the July 19, 2011 Press Conference on New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:
On January 18th of 2010 the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act was signed into law in the last day of the Corzine Administration. We were left with very little instruction in the end about how to implement this law and how to do it in a very complex legal environment, with conflicting and intersecting federal and state legal requirements and opportunities. And so we set out from the beginning to try to set up a scheme from a regulatory perspective that would allow us the greatest protection from federal intervention, because my goal in all of this from the beginning was pretty simple. I made clear during the campaign that this is not a law that I would have signed if I were Governor at the time. But I also on January 19th took an oath to enforce and uphold the laws of the state of New Jersey as Governor. And so despite all of the hyperbole over time from others, I have been struggling as has my administration to find a way to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, which is to provide compassionate treatment to people who are suffering in a way that will not expose them, the operators of our dispensaries, or the employees of the state of New Jersey to criminal liability. That is a lot easier said than done. That’s why we’ve taken the steps we’ve taken. Set up a regulatory scheme that makes this a very narrow and medically based program that will not lead itself to the abuses that we’ve seen particularly in California and in Colorado. A program that really is focused on taking care of truly ill people who have seen this as the best alternative to give them relief from the symptoms that they’re suffering from.
We were preparing and moving forward in March of 2011 by announcing the award of the successful six alternative treatment centers. And then on April 12th a letter from the US Attorney for the District of Hawaii, state officials in Hawaii reiterated the Department of Justice’s commitment, irrespective of state medical marijuana laws, to enforce the Controlled Substance Act. Two days later the western and eastern districts of Washington’s US Attorney’s Office sent an identical letter to Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington. That letter led Governor Gregoire to not approve the medical marijuana program in the state of Washington. A letter from the US Attorney for Montana reiterated it, a letter from the US Attorney for the District of Colorado reiterated it, the letter from the US Attorney in Rhode Island reiterated that position, all happening in April of this year.
It was at that point, the end of April of this year that I asked Attorney General Dow to write to Attorney General Holder and try to seek some clarification for a state like ours that already had passed a medical marijuana law and had already promulgated regulations and awarded dispensaries to deal with the implementation of the program. When we received our letter back from the Deputy Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General Cole on June 30th, we were a little busy around here on some other matters, but I took it with me on vacation and took time to read it and to study it and others in the administration did as well. But in the end I do feel uniquely situated compared to probably a number of my predecessors who are hanging on the walls in this room to make an evaluation of what federal law enforcement would and would not do in the context of all of the facts and circumstances that are here. And I have come to the conclusion, reading both the letter from Deputy Attorney General Cole and also reading remarks that the staff got for me from a March 28th 2008 editorial board from then-candidate Barack Obama when asked specifically about the conflict between federal law and state law on medical marijuana and what his approach would be to that, and here’s what the President of the United States said as a candidate in March of 2008 and he hasn’t said anything since that time to contradict this. He said “what I’m not going to be doing, what I’m not going to be doing, is using Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating violent crimes and potential terrorism and we’ve got lots of other things for our law enforcement officers to deal with.”
Taking that in combination with the letter from Deputy Attorney General Cole and most importantly the way we’ve set up this program which is to be a narrow medically based program that does not have the concerns about it that Deputy Attorney General Cole stated in his letter about a broad program where there’s growing going on everywhere, and selling going on all over the place, we are going to be restricted to just these six areas. That’s the reason we did the regulatory scheme we did at the time, not as a way to kill the program but as a way to implement the program, because in the end my desire all along has been to bring compassionate care to the people who need it the most and not to play politics with this issue.
And so that’s why I’m here today to announce that we are, I have instructed the Commissioner of Health to move forward as expeditiously as possible to implement the medical marijuana program in New Jersey as outlined in the regulatory scheme and the statutory scheme set up by the Legislature and by the Executive Branch. In consultation with the Commissioner of Health, they will reach out, the Department of Health will reach out today to the awardees of the six alternative treatment centers and tell them to begin work immediately towards opening and beginning the distribution in accordance with the law of medicinal marijuana to those who are entitled to get it in the state of New Jersey under the statutory scheme and in consultation with physicians. How long it’s going to take is something that we’ll probably know in the next week or two, when we get a response from the dispensaries about how quickly they can get up and running, but it is my judgment not only as Governor but I think almost more importantly as a former United States Attorney, that I don’t believe that the United States Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, and I’m not speaking for them, I don’t have the authority to do that any longer, I don’t believe the United States Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, given the narrow and medically based nature of our program will expend what are significantly lessening federal law enforcement resources in the context of the federal budget, on going after dispensaries in New Jersey, our Department of Health or other state workers who are helping to implement this program. They have too many other things I think to do, appropriately so, and while I have not gotten any indication, I want to make this clear, I have not spoken to the United States Attorney about this, and I’ve gotten no indication either directly or indirectly from US Attorney Fishman about what approach he may take.
It is my belief, having held that job for seven years, that there’s a lot of other things that will be more important as long as the dispensaries operate within the law. If they operate outside the law then they’re going to be subject to all the appropriate state and federal law enforcement risk that anybody would be who operates outside the law. But I believe as long as they operate within the law as it’s been regulated by this administration and promulgated through statute by the Legislature and Governor Corzine that they will not be susceptible to federal prosecution. That’s a risk. It’s a risk that I’m taking as Governor. But I’m taking that risk because I believe that the need to provide compassionate pain relief to these citizens of our state outweighs the risk that we are taking in moving forward with the program as it is set up.
I want to thank all the members of my administration who have worked extraordinarily hard on this issue. My Chief Counsel, Jeff Chiesa and Craig Domalewski from Counsel’s Office who has spent an extraordinary amount of time on this issue from the Governor’s Office perspective. The Commissioner of Health both Dr. Alaigh, the former Commissioner and the current Commissioner O’Dowd, folks from the AG’s office and others who have worked on this problem. And I want to thank the legislative sponsors for their patience in this regard both Senator Scutari and Assemblyman Gusciora have at times showed real patience and I think have understood, especially Assemblyman Gusciora, that we wanted to implement this program, but we wanted to do it in a way that would withstand legal scrutiny and provide the type of care and pain relief for those who really need it in a way that was medically based and not cause the type of real societal problems that you see if you travel to Colorado or California in particular where I think even folks in those states who have advocated those programs over time now believe that those programs are significantly out of control and leading to other problems in society that they were never intended to cause or contribute to.
This is one of those decisions that’s not an easy one for me as Governor. I had to balance the benefit that will go to citizens in pain versus some potential risks to the folks that we’re authorizing as dispensaries and to state employees. But I believe based on my background in law enforcement, my reading of the deputy Attorney General’s memorandum, and the comments by the President of the United States, that it’s a risk worth taking in order to alleviate the pain that people are suffering here in the state. So I’ve directed it to happen as soon as possible and as I said earlier based upon responses that we’ll be getting starting this week from the dispensary operators, we’ll be able to update you at a later date about exactly when we believe that this will be available to people in New Jersey who have lawfully obtained a right to get it. But you can be sure that we’ll be working and encouraging the dispensaries to get open as quickly as is practical, so that we can begin to deliver the type of relief to the citizens of our state that they need and deserve and that they’ll get it in a way that exposes them and those who are helping them, caregivers, the operators of the dispensary, and the citizens, and rather the employees of the Department of Health to the least amount of risk from a federal legal perspective.
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