A Beautiful Day in New Jersey
2/24/09 - Chris Goldstein
Chuck Kwiatkowski moves his body in manner that is hard to describe, there is a hesitance or mild shakiness. It comes from pain and discomfort. It is there when he walks or extends his arm to shake your hand or even in how his bright eyes seem to smile before the rest of his face.
The former computer technician for AT&T, who spent thousands of hours restoring phone connections after 9/11, is now on disability and coping with Multiple Sclerosis. We all know it simply as MS.
But Chuck knows it as a chronic disease that has taken away his mobility and career. Smoking or eating marijuana has been the one thing that eases the pain and other symptoms, allowing him to spend time with his three daughters.
As if all of this weren't enough; Chuck had the incredible courage to candidly testify before a New Jersey State Senate Health Committee hearing looking at medical cannabis. His honesty and truly heartbreaking situation were moving. Senator Bill Baroni quoted passages of that testimony on the Senate floor as reasons why he needed to vote 'Yes' for the bill.
On February 23, 2009, just after 4:20PM ET, The Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act, SB119 passed in the New Jersey State Senate by a 22-16 vote. Chuck stood in the gallery and cheered with other supporters. When I saw him in the hallway outside the chambers he said enthusiastically and repeatedly: "It really is a great day to be an American."
Kwiatkowski's comments sum up the reasons for this mile-marker success for medical marijuana access in the Garden State. It was the courage of patients stepping forward and telling their stories to elected officials combined with a resounding public response, in the form of emails and phone calls, which propelled the issue. It was a day when the system worked.
Tempering the occasion was that it came too late for the woman who many regard as the catalyst for NJ medical access, Cheryl Miller, to see. Her husband Jim, who has become an outspoken advocate following Cheryl's death from MS complications, was in the Senate for the vote.
SB119, along with a companion Assembly Bill A804 have languished in legislative Health Committees for more than 3 years. There has been some visible support in the past from elected officials who asked Montel Williams to speak before a committee hearing in 2006. Thus there is some sentiment that medical cannabis access has cleared a major hurdle by passing the state Senate.
Governor John Corzine has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
The Senate debate on the topic was short but intense. The bill's sponsor, Senator Nick Scutari, addressed the opposition with a truly impassioned speech that mixed creative tactics with real force to each argument.
One of the most surprising voices to offer support for the bill was Republican Senator Bill Baroni who sat on the Health Committee. He read from patient testimonies and then appealed to his fellow Senators with, "Can there be a greater calling for us than to actually ease people's suffering?"
Personally, I have never seen the civic and legislative process turn out so joyfully. I spoke with the founders of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey in the hallway just after the vote. Ken Wolski who is a registered nurse and Jim Miller, the longtime activist who has carried the fight on for his late wife Cheryl, were smiling in a way I had never seen in them. In fact I have rarely seen anyone smile with such naked joy.
As patients hugged and shook hands, the opposition lobbyists huddled in a corner and scowled. It was priceless. In that huddle were vehement prohibitionists who have fought medical access not only here in their home state of NJ, but also around the country.
While this middle-victory felt good, the fight is not over for medical marijuana access in New Jersey. The issue still must pass an Assembly Health Committee and see a floor vote in the full Assembly. That bill, A804 with Senate amendments, will now be re-heard.
As I left the Capitol Complex at the end of the day I saw a New Jersey State Police Trooper who kindly helped me find my way around the confusing hallways earlier. He eyed my lapel pin from CMMNJ- It's a green outline of NJ with a white cross and green marijuana leaf.
I said, " Hey the Senate just passed the Medical Marijuana bill!"
"Really? They did that today huh?"
Something about the look on that cop's face and the wry smile that formed under his grey mustache made for an unforgettable moment where, just for a second, this NJ State Trooper and I were on the same side of this issue. I got this vision of a future where marijuana consumers and medical marijuana patients don't have to fear the police or state sanctions for this activity and medicine.
As I stepped out to a cold and blustery Trenton, I smiled and said to him, "It sure is a beautiful day in New Jersey."
The Trooper agreed.
More about the continuing fight for medical marijuana access in New Jersey at www.cmmnj.org
Chris Goldstein will be speaking with Ken Wolski at a series of public information events around New Jersey in March and April.
A Beautiful Day in New Jersey by Chris Goldstein is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.activevoiceradio.com.
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