MONTCLAIR, New Jersey - Medical marijuana will be available as early as this summer in New Jersey, where the nation's most restrictive law governing the practice could be a fresh model for states considering a similar route.
Only patients in New Jersey suffering from specific ailments such as HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis can be prescribed medical marijuana, and then only after other treatments have failed. The law also is the first in the nation to prohibit patients from growing their own crop at home.
States such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, where medical marijuana has been proposed, are looking to New Jersey's system, instead of more permissive systems in California and Montana, as a guiding framework.
California allows patients suffering from a wide range of ailments to grow their own marijuana or obtain it with a doctor's "recommendation" from a dispensary operated as a nonprofit collective.
In Montana, federal agents recently raided state-sanctioned medical marijuana greenhouses and dispensaries in several cities, and prosecutors said those operations were using the law for large-scale drug trafficking.
In contrast, the New Jersey law "was very helpful as a model," said Maryland lawmaker Dan Morhaim, a Democrat who drafted the medical marijuana bill in the state House of Delegates.
"It seemed very sensible compared to some of the other states," he said. His bill has been met with resistance, and is unlikely to pass the Maryland legislature this session.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have laws permitting marijuana for medical uses. The District's law, approved last year, allows patients with certain ailments to obtain marijuana only from city-regulated dispensaries.
This week the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services gave contracts to six nonprofit organizations to grow and distribute medical marijuana at six authorized locations.
Advocates worry the New Jersey law is a harbinger of models so strict that they fail to serve patients in need.
The New Jersey law "broke all precedent going in a bad direction," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group.
When then-Gov. Jon Corzine signed New Jersey's bill into law as he left office in January 2010, it was already the most restrictive, allowing access to patients suffering from a short list of ailments and prohibiting home-grown plants.
When Gov. Chris Christie, a former prosecutor, moved into the statehouse, he delayed implementation until the law could be further examined and amended.
Critics say Christie's amendments, such as prohibiting home delivery and allowing cannabis to be prescribed only after other therapies have failed, make the law unworkable.
A resolution is making its way through the Assembly and Senate that, if passed, would reject Christie's changes, which are still in the process of being officially implemented as part of the medical marijuana law.
"This bill was passed a year ago, and not a single patient has medical marijuana," said Ken Wolski, chief executive of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, New Jersey. "How much of a model are we to other states if we can't get a program going?"
But state officials contend the law is well-thought out.
"We have designed a unique program that is physician driven," said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Doctors interested in prescribing marijuana must register with the state, and 80 physicians have signed up. Patients who qualify must be registered by a doctor, then register themselves and pay a $200 fee.
The alternative, say proponents, is no law at all.
"With time and experience the restrictions will be relaxed," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat who sponsored the original bill in the New Jersey state Assembly. "The alternative is to scrap the entire the law."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)