Christie vetoed the portion of the bill that would allow minors to enter the program with one doctor's referral, citing the importance of taking extra precaution, since children may react to the drug differently from adults.
Currently, the program requires minors to get consent letters from two doctors (a psychiatrist and a pediatrician), only one of which needs to be registered with the program. The bill would have simplified the process to one physician approval, which Christie vetoed.
"Protection of our children remains my utmost concern," Christie said in the memo to the Senate, "and our regulations must make certain that children receive the care they need, while remaining well-guarded from potential harm."
Christie's veto comes two days after the father of a 2-year-old who is enrolled in the program approached him at a campaign event in Scotch Plains and asked him to pass the bill, saying, "Please don't let my daughter die."
Brian Wilson's daughter Vivian has a rare form of epilepsy that could kill her. His family has said they were running out of time waiting.
Vivian's mother, Meghan, said Friday that she was glad Christie agreed to expand the number of marijuana strains available, allowing participants like her daughter to get the medicine they needed. But she couldn't understand the need for multiple doctors letters, particularly a psychiatrist's.
"I don't think it's fair to make parents who are at their wits' end run around the state chasing doctors for letters," she said. "Unless the child is being treated for a psychiatric condition, a psychiatrist has no role in this."
She said few doctors in New Jersey understood their role in the process, mistaking a letter of support for a prescription.
"Parents are climbing this uphill battle trying to explain," she said, "and I think the state owes it to all of us to provide education so [physicians] understand."
Wilson said it was unlikely her daughter would get the kind of marijuana she needed for at least a year. Once a bill is passed, the strain would need to be cultivated, likely from the West Coast, made into an edible form, and approved by the Department of Health. Just growing the marijuana takes three months.
New Jersey's only operational dispensary isn't currently seeing patients, Wilson said. "It's going to take a long time. It's not like Vivian can go get medicine tomorrow," she said, "which is a shame because she needs it today."
A primary sponsor of the bill, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), said that while he was pleased to see some portions of the bill go through, the delay would prolong help for patients in need.
"If you know someone who gets diagnosed with something very, very serious, who is going to pass away in six to eight months, they have virtually no opportunity to get the relief they need," Scutari said.
He said that he would meet with senators Monday to decide how to proceed, but that he was inclined to go along with the changes to get the bill passed.
Roseanne Scotti, director of New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group for drug-policy reform, said Christie was overlooking key groups of people by allowing edible medicine only for minors. She cited the elderly and people with advanced illnesses such as multiple sclerosis or ALS.
In April, Christie proposed a $1.6 million budget for the three-year-old medical-marijuana program - more than twice the current spending plan - in anticipation that more dispensaries would open this year.
With only one dispensary authorized to open, the program has been slow to progress. Two additional dispensaries are expected to open in the fall.
Contact Julia Terruso at 856-779-3876 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @juliaterruso.