Why would using a substance that promotes health be criminal?
That’s a question lawyers from one New Jersey law firm plan to ask Tuesday when the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs holds a public-input session on reclassifying marijuana.
As debate over marijuana legalization rages in New Jersey, the Consumer Affairs Division is reconsidering its classification of marijuana as a “Schedule 1″ controlled dangerous substance, which ranks it alongside heroin and LSD as the most strictly regulated drugs in the state.
“De-scheduling” weed would not legalize it, but it would be an important step toward legalization, said Alan Silber, who plans to testify at the Consumer Affair’s Division’s upcoming public comment session.
Silber is an attorney with the Pashman, Stein, Walder, Hayden law firm, which has offices in Red Bank and Hackensack.
Silber and fellow attorneys Sean Mack, C.J. Griffin and Michael Stein authored a brief they filed with the Consumer Affairs Division outlining reasons they believe marijuana should be “de-scheduled.”
Key among them is that “cannabinoids” found in marijuana plants are identical to helpful cannabinoids produced in the human body, according to their brief.
The cannabinoids produced in the body work with cannabinoid receptors in the brain and immune system to maintain health, they said. Cannabinoids in marijuana plants, which are identical to those produced in the body, also are recognized by the body’s receptors and enhance their functioning, according to the brief.
“So, you have a substance which you’re saying is illegal, which is identical to a substance that is made in the human body to keep us healthy,” Silber said. “What’s wrong with that picture?”
The cannabinoid receptors weren’t discovered until 1988, and the science surrounding it has slowly evolved, according to the lawyers’ brief.
“Science has now explained why cannabis is effective medicine for so many seemingly unrelated health issues,” the brief said.
“Interestingly, none of these cannabinoid receptors are found in the brain stem,” it said. “The brain stem regulates vital functions such as breathing and heartbeat. Opioid receptors are found in the brain stem, which is why overdoses of opioids cause respiratory suppression and subsequent cardiac arrest. The absence of cannabinoid receptors in the brain stem explains why there has never been a death from cannabis overdose.”
Among the things the Consumer Affairs Division is considering in evaluating how marijuana is classified is its potential for abuse, scientific evidence of its effects and its potential for physical and psychological dependence.
The Controlled Dangerous Substances Act, passed in 1970, places hazardous drugs in five categories, or schedules. Drugs are classified as “Schedule 1″ if they have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
Silber and his colleagues in their brief maintain that marijuana meets none of those criteria. In fact, they say over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin and cough syrup have far more potential to cause serious harm than cannabis. The same is true, they say, for alcohol and tobacco.
Attempts to gain comment from New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, a group that opposes marijuana legalization, were unsuccessful.
An appellate court decision last year cleared the way for the Consumer Affairs Division to re-examine its classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
The decision was written by Judge Michael Guadagno of Monmouth County, the husband of former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who lost last year’s gubernatorial election to Gov. Phil Murphy. Murphy has vowed to legalize marijuana.
Guadagno in the court decision said the director of the Consumer Affairs Division has the authority to reclassify marijuana.
“While this issue is not squarely before us, it is certainly ripe for a determination by the director,” Guadagno wrote.
Guadagno also said in the decision that while marijuana had no medical use in the United States in 1971, when the Controlled Dangerous Substance Act became effective, to continue to argue that it has no medical benefits “strains credulity beyond acceptable boundaries.”
He added, “Medical benefits from the use of marijuana not known in 1971 … and impediments to its lawful use as a result of its Schedule 1 classification, are abundant and glaringly apparent now.”
The Consumer Affairs Division said in a news release that de-scheduling would neither decriminalize or legalize marijuana, but it can affect how strictly it is regulated.
“I don’t think it would have the direct impact I would like to see, but I do think it is an important step,” Silber said. “What we’re hoping to do with the de-scheduling is bring the scientific reality to the debate.
“If you de-schedule it, you’re saying it’s not dangerous,” he said. “Why would you criminalize something that’s not dangerous?”
The Consumer Affairs Division will hold two public-input sessions Tuesday at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, 25 Market St., Trenton, in the attorney general’s library on the sixth floor. The first session is from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and the second is from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.