By JOHN T. WARD
Among those cheering at the Statehouse when New Jersey’s law allowing medical marijuana passed in January, 2010 was Eric Hafner, an 18-year-old who found in cannabis what he did not in prescription drugs: relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by a “traumatic, horrifying” incident two years earlier.
Two years later, however, the law has yet to be implemented, and Hafner is a facing a charge of possessing less than 50 grams of marijuana as a result of an early-morning traffic stop in Middletown in late November.
But even though the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act as written would not have protected him from prosecution had it been put into effect, Hafner says he will not plead guilty, as is customary in hundreds of such busts that go through the municipal court each year. Instead, he says, he’s prepared to go to jail to protest what he believes are the law’s shortcomings and to assert what he says is a constitutional right.
“I’m not going to plead guilty to using my medicine,” he says.
The 2010 state law allows patients of severe illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and AIDS to obtain cannabis through licensed dispensaries, none of which are yet in operation. It does not include PTSD among the qualifying medical conditions for which doctors are permitted to recommend pot, but has a provision for other illnesses to be covered after a waiting period of two years. However, the state Department of Health and Senior Services, which administers the law and has won several extensions on a deadline to put it into effect, has yet to allow any petitions for additional conditions be submitted.
Hafner, who described his trauma to redbankgreen but asked that details not be published, contends that doctors put him on Xanax for his condition, but it did little to mitigate “nightmares, flashbacks and depression,” and left him feeling “like a zombie” the next day. Marijuana, he says, calms him down so he can function. He notes that Delaware’s medical marijuana law, which was “modeled on New Jersey’s,” does included PTSD.
Home-schooled and unemployed, Hafner lives
with his in a house that for 50 years was home to his grandmother, a retired registered nurse in her late 80s “who told me a lot of cancer patients she treated used marijuana” to relieve the effects of chemotherapy.
Active in Republican politics he worked on Highlands Mayor Anna Little‘s failed congressional campaign in 2010 and supports Ron Paul’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination Hafner hopes to someday pursue a law degree and maybe even run for Congress himself someday, he said in an interview last week.
For now, however, he’s trying to avoid six months in jail and perhaps $1,000 in fines.
Hafner was a passenger in a car driven by a friend when it was pulled over by police for a broken headlight on Navesink River Road near Locust Point Road around 2 a.m. on November 27. After telling the occupants that he smelled marijuana, an officer conducted a search that led to Hafner’s pot pipe rolled up in a sweatshirt in the back seat and about a gram of “sour diesel” pot in his wallet, Hafner said.
Hafner said he and the driver had not been smoking in the car, but they had been at a friend’s house and “there was cannabis present.”
Hafner said he has not hired an attorney, and may represent himself when his case comes up in municipal court. He plans to challenge details of his arrest, including the right of the police to search him.
But he also says he will press his case on the basis that “the state Constitution says I have the right to pursue [marijuana use] for safety.” He cites article I, which states,
“All persons are by nature free and independent, and have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and of pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”
A guilty plea, Hafner said, would come with mandatory probation and drug testing, but “I’m not going to stop what I’m doing, so probation is not an option. I’d be sacrificing my own health and safety, and I’m not going to do that, and he government has no right to tell me to do that.”
Having adopted the new law, the state should have permitted him and other PTSD patients to petition that their condition be included, he said.
Hafner “is being very open about the fact that he uses marijuana as medicine for PTSD,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana – New Jersey. “Eric is an exemplar of patients who continue to suffer through the legal system from conditions that medical marijuana can help.”
Wolski says there have been cases in the past two years in which patients who would be protected by the new law have had possession charges dismissed by local judges, “but it’s really just a crapshoot” for the defendants, he said.
Wolski says the Christie Admininistration is “absolutely dragging its heels” on implementing the law.
State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon of Little Silver, who has introduced a bill that would knock down what he sees as artificial local roadblocks to the medical marijuana dispensaries, disagrees.
“I’ve worked with this administration. Their intention was not to kill it,” he said. “It’s fair to say they wanted it to be restrictive, but with good reason, and they were working to make this legislation work.”
O’Scanlon said Hafner has met with his staff, and through them he is familiar with Hafner’s situation. He said he, too, “would hope the authorities would cut Eric some slack and take into account” his health issue, because “I don’t think we’re going to see any legislative redress.”
The coalition plans to protest the delay in the law’s implementation at an event on the Statehouse steps at noon on Wednesday, the second anniversary of the law’s signing by Christie’s predecessor, Jon Corzine.