How being a lawmaker turned me into a medical marijuana activist

20170105-scott-rudder-portraitThis past election brought us more than just a new president, it brought our country closer to legalizing cannabis (marijuana) across the board.

For some, the thought of legalizing cannabis and ending 80 years of costly prohibition is a time for celebration. For others, it’s a cause for alarm and fear. For me and many others, it’s a continuation of an educational journey. From the Nixon-era “War on Drugs” to more recent scientific and statistical research, the world is relearning the true nature and qualities of a plant that has been part of our medical and cultural history for thousands of years.

Whether or not cannabis should be legalized is not a subject most people followed closely. It’s something you saw in your late teens and early twenties. You knew it was illegal and that’s just how it was. People tried it or didn’t, it wasn’t a big issue.

20170105 rudder map It wasn’t until I was in the Legislature that I had to move beyond just having a casual opinion to a fact-based position because I had to vote on cannabis-related issues. That being said, I admittedly struggled with my first vote on whether or not to legalize medical cannabis in a vote in 2009.

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My concerns at the time were based on years of societal norms that said cannabis is bad and prescription drugs are good. My other concern was that facilities growing cannabis might create an environment for increased crime and more illegal cannabis on the streets.

Initially, my thought was to vote no. I wasn’t comfortable with legal cannabis, medicinal or otherwise. However, as the discussion grew and evidence was presented that showed the medicinal benefits that cannabis brought to patients dealing with awful ailments, I softened my views.

While I still wasn’t convinced that the legislation in front of me was in the best interests of the majority of New Jersey, I couldn’t vote against it. The arguments on the pro side of the debate equaled the con side in my mind so I took the easy way out, I abstained. Not proud of that vote, but at the time, I did not feel strongly enough to support or oppose the bill. The legislation nonetheless passed, with a lot of abstentions from other legislators who shared my mixed feelings.

Those mixed feelings went away quickly as I watched the implementation of the medical-cannabis program and its many challenges. I heard from cancer patients seeking relief with no relief on the horizon. I talked to individuals whose health issues were exacerbated because their prescription pain medication caused more negatives than positives. I learned more about the benefits of medical cannabis and how it could relieve these patients from pain without the negative side effects often associated with prescription drugs.

What solidified my change in position was the day I spoke with Meghan Wilson as she shared the story of her then two-year-old daughter, Vivian.

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Meghan Wilson and her daughter Vivian at the state capitol in Trenton on August 1, 2013 urging Gov Christie to expand the state’s medical marijuana program to children. (Phil Gregory/for NewsWorks)

Vivian suffers from Dravet syndrome, a life-threatening seizure disorder that traditional pharmaceutical medicine is unable to control. At the time, Vivian was suffering more than 100 seizures a day and the medication she was on was not providing the relief she needed. Her parents, desperate, researched solutions and discovered that cannabis, in edible form, would relieve her of her seizures and provide an opportunity for a more normal childhood. How could I stand on the sidelines for that? How could any compassionate person?

So, on my next opportunity to vote on medicinal cannabis in 2013, I voted for the expansion of the medicinal cannabis program that would permit cannabis edibles and allow children suffering from certain conditions to have access to relief. Unfortunately for the Wilsons, there were so many hurdles and roadblocks in the implementation of the legislation that they made the difficult decision to pick up and move to Colorado where they could immediately seek relief for their daughter. Smart move. Why should they wait for New Jersey lawmakers and regulators to get their act together when their daughter is deteriorating before their very eyes?

Now here we are, fast-forward to the dawn of 2017, and while I’m no longer a member of the Legislature, I’ve become an advocate for medical cannabis. I have dear friends with severe ailments and diseases who rely on medical cannabis to help them through severe pain, to deal with side effects associated with cancer treatment and to help heal while they struggle with PTSD.

The reality is, it’s only been in relatively recent history that cannabis became a thing to be feared. Once the curtain is pulled back on the cannabis plant, it’s not scary at all when used responsibly. That’s not just my opinion, it’s the opinion of a growing number of medical professionals and a majority of Americans, many of whom voted to legalize either medical or recreational cannabis on November 8. As more and more information comes in from studies as well as actual statistics from states like Colorado and Washington, we are finding that our worst fears are not coming to pass.

On a recent trip to Colorado, I joined some of New Jersey’s top elected officials where we met with law enforcement, tax and revenue officials, health officials, elected officials and industry experts. We discussed the challenges and concerns that Colorado experienced in their initial foray into the legal world of cannabis.

I will delve deeper into the lessons learned from that visit and its potential implications to New Jersey in an upcoming opinion article. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to keep an open mind. In the words of the sponsor of the legislation that set in motion Colorado’s cannabis legalization journey, “Cannabis is a drug. However, it’s important that we understand cannabis for the drug that it is, and not the drug we fear it to be.”

Mr. Rudder is currently a Partner at Burton Trent Public Affairs and an advocate for advancements in cannabis bio-research and reform.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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