Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Medical marijuana and the case of a Jersey MS patient

Published: Wednesday, August 24, 2011
By Times of Trenton guest opinion column
By Ken Wolski

John Wilson, a 38-year-old multiple sclerosis (MS) patient from Somerset, is appealing his recent marijuana conviction to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The trial judge kept crucial facts from the jury, yet an appellate court last month supported the judge’s decision. Now the Supreme Court will determine if compassionate justice is possible in New Jersey.

About 10 years ago, Wilson was diagnosed with MS, a progressive, neurological disease for which there is no known cure. Wilson’s symptoms were headache, blurred vision and numbness from the waist down. Typically, the symptoms of MS worsen over time and may progress to total paralysis and death.

Wilson found from experience what the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s 2008 Expert Opinion Paper confirmed from its research: Marijuana is effective in controlling the symptoms of MS, and it can stop the progression of the disease.

Wilson was arrested in August 2008 for growing 17 marijuana plants that he used to treat his MS. He was charged with “manufacturing” marijuana and faced 20 years in prison. At the request of the prosecutor, the trial judge would not allow Wilson to testify to the jury that he had MS and that his marijuana was for his personal use to treat his disease.

This shocked the conscience of the community, who felt that Wilson could not get a fair trial unless the jury knew all the facts.

A number of rallies were held. Many people wrote letters to the editor in support of Wilson, and the judge was besieged with requests to reconsider. The “Support John Wilson” Facebook page was started. Top-notch lawyers generously donated their time to Wilson, who, for years, had been only marginally employed, due to his disability.

Members of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey (CMMNJ) participated in educating the public about this injustice. CMMNJ supporters carried signs in front of the Somerset County Court House, where the trial was held, explaining that Wilson was a medical marijuana patient, not a criminal. Jim Miller, one of CMMNJ’s founders, said that Wilson was prevented by the judge from telling “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

New Jersey state Sens. Nick Scutari, D-Linden, and Ray Lesniack, D-Union, called on the governor to pardon Wilson, to no avail. Sen. Scutari said, “It seems cruel and unusual to treat New Jersey’s sick and dying as if they were drug cartel kingpins. Moreover, it is a complete waste of taxpayer money having to house and treat an MS patient in a jail at the public’s expense.”

Wilson was convicted in December 2008 of the lesser charge of second-degree drug manufacturing. Trial Judge Robert Reed sentenced him to five years in prison. An appeals court recently said that Judge Reed was correct in not allowing Wilson to explain to the jury that he has MS and that the marijuana was used as his medicine. It said there is no “personal use defense to a charge of growing marijuana.” Thus, it was irrelevant that Wilson used marijuana to treat his MS symptoms.

Wilson’s trial lawyer, Jim Wronko, has said, “I believe those statutes are either unconstitutional or they do not accurately reflect the intent of the Legislature not to put someone in state prison for personal use under these circumstances.”

Even the state of New Jersey now officially recognizes marijuana as a legitimate treatment for MS. New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was originally introduced in the Legislature in 2005. It is the most restrictive such law in the nation, but MS is one of the qualifying conditions for marijuana therapy in the state. However, more than six years later, there is still no working medical marijuana program in the state for desperately ill residents such as Wilson.

Discretion, or case-by-case consideration, could have prevented this entire ordeal at any step in the process, from the arresting police, to the prosecutor, to the judge, to the governor. Wilson was arrested despite telling the police about his MS. The prosecutor charged Wilson with “maintaining a manufacturing facility,” despite knowing full well why Wilson was growing marijuana. A jury convicted Wilson without hearing all the facts. The judge sentenced Wilson to prison, and an appeals court upheld the trial court’s decisions. Clearly, it is a terrible injustice when a defendant is prevented from presenting his only defense at trial.

Wilson’s hopes now rest with the state Supreme Court. We have seen just how thoroughly injustice is institutionalized in the New Jersey criminal justice system when it comes to patients using marijuana therapeutically. Now we will see if the Supreme Court is concerned merely with the letter of the law or with actual justice.

Ken Wolski, R.N., MPA, is executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey (

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