Medical marijuana bill gains legislative support

February 23, 2005

Jim Baron , Pawtucket Times

PROVIDENCE -- A bill that would allow people with degenerative illnesses to use marijuana to help relieve their suffering has 50 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate, leading supporters to believe this is the year it could win passage.
Sen. Rhoda Perry, who has introduced the measure in each of the last five years, said, 'we have indications it is going to pass. We’ve gotten some strong feelings that it is not looked on with such negativity as it has in the past.'

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Rep. Thomas Slater, who introduced the House bill said the 50 signatures indicate 'more than enough' support to pass in that chamber, but said the concern is on the Senate side, which he said, 'has a much more conservative viewpoint' than the House.

It takes 20 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, two more than the number of co-signers to Perry’s bill.

'The public perception is that medical marijuana should be available to those who need it,' Slater told The Times Wednesday.

The Providence lawmaker said his own two-year battle with cancer has swayed his opinion on the issue. 'If you asked me 10 years ago if I would have put in the bill, I don’t think I would have.'

Perry said her nephew, Edward Hawkins, died of AIDS a year ago last month. Although marijuana could have been made available to him, she said, 'he absolutely refused because he was so afraid of being arrested and thrown out of the nursing home he was in.

'It could have provided him with such incredible but simple comfort.'

Using marijuana, Perry said, could allow patients like her nephew to stay off other drugs such as morphine 'so they can better relate to their families in their last days.' Hawkins was on so much morphine in his last weeks, she said, that it was difficult or impossible for him to have conversations.

Asked how she would answer critics who say efforts to legalize medical marijuana are a Trojan horse to push for the legalization of recreational drug use, Perry said, 'I would like them to go into the homes of men and women dying in the last stages of AIDS, or who have severe glaucoma or different types of cancer. It’s not only what the patient is feeling, but the families around the patients. For people to live their lives while they are in the dying process is an amazingly positive event.'

Under the legislation, if a patient gets a prescription from his or her doctor to use marijuana medically the patient and his or her primary caregiver -- a person over 18 who has agreed to assist the patient -- would be issued 'registry identification cards' from the Department of Health that would protect them from arrest, prosecution or civil penalties.

A patient would not be allowed to possess more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana or 12 marijuana plants at any time.

Marijuana is a controlled substance under federal law and a change in the state law would not protect patients or caregivers from arrest or prosecution by federal authorities, who have conducted raids and made arrests in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Among the states that currently allow medical marijuana are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

In the past two years, according to the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, more than 100 Rhode Island doctors have endorsed medical marijuana, as have the R.I. Medical Society, the R.I.State Nurses Association, AIDS Project Rhode Island, United Nurses and Allied Professionals, the American Association of Family Physicians and the R.I. chapter of the ACLU.

Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, said that group will be working closely with the bills supporters in Rhode Island to win passage.

Mirken said the reason most of the states with medical marijuana laws are in the western part of the country is that most of the laws have been passed through ballot initiatives rather than state legislatures.

'Public support for this is huge,' Mirken said. 'It is easier to get a popular vote' than it is to get politicians to support the issue.

Even those who support medical marijuana, Mirken said, do not understand how much support it has among their fellow citizens.

'We have a majority that is convinced they are in the minority.'

When Rhode Islanders were polled on whether they support allowing the medical use of marijuana, Mirken said, 69 percent said they favored it with 26 percent saying they didn’t. But when those same people were asked if they think a majority of people in the state support it, 26.5 percent said yes and 55.9 percent said no.

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