The issue captured national attention when the parents of a 2-year-old girl with severe epilepsy aggressively lobbied for the bill, saying cannabis has stopped the seizures of several children in Colorado.
Last week, Brian Wilson of Scotch Plains begged Christie at a campaign stop to sign the bill, saying, "Please don't let my daughter die, Governor." He was referring to Vivian Wilson, who has been prescribed barbiturates and other dangerous drugs without success and whose seizures are potentially life-threatening. Her neurologist supports her parents' decision to try cannabis.
Christie, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has been forced to deal with the emotional issue while keeping an eye on his conservative base, including those who prefer a tough stance against the drug.
Wilson criticized him as playing politics with the bill and waiting two months to issue his decision. Vivian, a registered patient since February, has not been able to get cannabis due to a shortage in dispensaries and restrictions that have prevented the drug from being produced in a child-friendly form.
"The program has been made so restrictive that it has prevented eligible patients from obtaining the relief they are entitled to under the law," Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union), a primary sponsor of the legislation, said after Monday's vote. "These commonsense changes are a small step toward ensuring that children who are suffering from a debilitating condition can get the compassionate care they deserve. I want to thank the Wilson family for working with us on this legislation."
Wilson said that children such as Vivian cannot smoke cannabis and also need a highly specialized strain that is high in cannabinoids and low in THC, the ingredient that produces euphoria.
The bill would allow dispensaries to grow more than three strains of marijuana, the current limit, and Christie went along with that proposal.
But he opposed the part that would allow children to obtain the permission of only one doctor - the same as adults - in favor of at least two or three.
Christie has said he wants to retain a requirement that minors obtain approval from a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, and if neither is registered with the state program, a third doctor who would make the referral.
On Friday, Christie said he went along with parts of the bill because "parents, and not government regulators, are best suited to decide how to care for their children."
But he said that he prefers multiple doctors signing off on a child's use of marijuana because "this approach is endorsed by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics."
Urging his colleagues to support the amended bill, Scutari said: "I'm encouraged by the direction of the governor's office." But he said the law still contains "significant hurdles," including the difficulties parents face getting referrals.
Currently, two pediatricians and 18 psychiatrists are registered with the marijuana program.
Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.
Inquirer staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.