Drugs

Severely Ill, Card-Carrying Medical Marijuana Patients Arrested—For Pot Possession

It's already difficult to sign up for a medical card in the Garden State, and Gov. Chris Christie has made it harder—and cancer patients are going to jail.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/JeremyNathan

A New Jersey medical marijuana user is facing drug charges because he sought police assistance following a domestic disturbance that nearly cost him his life.

Scott Waselik walked into a police station in the town of Sparta, New Jersey on October 8, with a stab wound to his chest. He was the victim, he said, of a breakup gone awry. Waselik's former roommate Kevin Rios was arrested for the attack, which left Waselik in the hospital for a week.

His health is improving, but the 23-year-old’s problems are piling up. While investigating the stabbing, police found marijuana in Waselik’s home. Now, he’s incurring thousands in legal fees to defend himself on drug possession charges.

The kicker? Waselik is a medical marijuana patient registered under the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. He suffers from Crohn's disease and uses marijuana to reduce seizure risk and counteract nausea that is caused by his pharmaceutical treatments.

“The only relief I've found was smoking,” he said.

His medication was the last thing on his mind when he walked into the police station.

“I would have died if I didn't get there within an hour,” he recounted.

But when cops entered his house they found and confiscated drugs and smoking devices.

“They disregard any compassion for card-holding patients,” Waselik said. “Rather than doing any type of crime-scene evidence [about the stabbing], they decided to just go the marijuana route at that point.”

Sparta police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Around 22,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey each year, pinning a criminal record on defendants who have hurt no one in addition to tying up law enforcement and court resources. Some arrestees, like Waselik, are supposed to be legally authorized to use the drug.

New Jersey NORML executive director Evan Nison said the group has been hearing on a regular basis from medical marijuana card holders who get arrested.

“The state has said this person is sick enough to get medical marijuana, medical marijuana could help them, they are failing to provide access and then arresting them for having to look elsewhere,” Nison said.

The problem is that the state's strict statute and ever stricter regulations make it impossible for many patients who qualify for treatment to actually obtain their medication legally.

“Many potential patients who can benefit from marijuana therapy are not able to get legal access to it,” said Ken Wolski, CEO of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey.

“Governor Christie said he was opposed to this law when he first came into office in January 2010 and he's been putting stumbling blocks and delays in the implementation of this program every since,” Wolski said. “The result is that patients continue to get arrested.”

Attorney General guidelines instruct police officers to attempt to verify a medical cardholder's participation in the program and not to make an arrest or confiscate any drugs from anyone they find to be in compliance with the law. Officers should not follow an “arrest first, let the court figure it out later” approach, the guidelines say. They also point out that “items otherwise constituting 'drug paraphernalia' that are used to administer or ingest medical marijuana” should not be taken or used as evidence for criminal charges.

Marijuana purchased from alternative treatment centers is packaged with identification information, and Waselik acknowledged that the drugs the police found in his house did not come from a treatment center. Waselik denied the weed was his; however, it’s possible that, on a technicality, the police might have a case against him.

The very notion of prosecuting a medical patient for possession of their prescribed medicine highlights New Jersey's unnecessarily restrictive marijuana regime, which puts up as many obstacles as it can between patients and their medicine.

It's already difficult to sign up for a medical card, and Christie has made it harder. The original statute passed by the legislature makes no mention of doctors needing to register with the state Department of Health in order to recommend marijuana for their patients, but under Christie's leadership such a requirement was implemented. This step adds red tape to the process and discourages doctors from participating in the medical marijuana program. The red tape is combined with a restrictive list of symptoms, which limits who is eligible for a card. As a consequence only about 1,500 patients have received authorization in the state.

The few people sanctioned to use medical cannibas must first find a way to acquire it. The statute does not allow for home growth and only permits six clinics in the state to dispense medical cannabis. The Christie administration has thrown up numerous additional obstacles for treatment center licensure so that three years after the law passed, just three clinics have opened in New Jersey. The first, GreenLeaf Compassion Center in Montclair, opened just last year.

Greenleaf was unable to serve all the people who needed access to cannabis, and has been open and closed intermittently, at one point shutting its doors for two consecutive months. The clinic did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails requesting comment.

The latest clinic, Garden State Dispensary, just opened to the public in December and expects to serve about 40 patients a day.

With nowhere else to turn, many patients are left to buy marijuana the traditional way—underground.

Joseph D‘Souza learned of the state's continuing prohibitionist stance the hard way when he was arrested for possession in April.

D'Souza, 54, has undergone chemotherapy and radiation for three types of cancer and has a medical card, but was never able to successfully buy cannabis from a treatment center.

“Patients like us have to go out and get something, especially me for my body,” he said. “It's illegal, but it's a medicine I need.”

At his low point, D'Souza said he was down to 69 pounds, “just skeleton and skin,” and lapsed into a coma. He uses marijuana to heal both his body and his mind from the trauma of his illness, but law enforcement has not been sympathetic. Police searched his car while he was parked in Bayonne, and found less than a gram. D’Souza was wrung through the legal system for months before ultimately escaping with a fine for paraphernalia and the possession charges dismissed.

A bill is advancing in the state legislature that could provide some relief, allowing patients to use medical marijuana that is legally grown in other states, but Gov. Christie has vowed to veto the measure.

“Every time you sign one expansion, then the advocates will come back and ask for another one," the governor said in a recent press conference. “Here's what the advocates want: They want legalization of marijuana in New Jersey. It will not happen on my watch, ever. I am done expanding the medical marijuana program under any circumstances. So we're done."

The legislature of New Jersey has considered a separate decriminalization bill, which, if passed, would appear to have about a zero percent chance of becoming law as long as the governor remains in office. In the meantime, people with chronic illness are left to suffer.

“We're talking about legitimate patients with HIV and cancer and multiple sclerosis who are at legal risk,” Wolski said. “They've got no place to go to get their medicine.”

Aaron Kase is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @Aaron_Kase.

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