Lawmakers rally behind legalizing medical marijuana

April 05, 2005

Liz Anderson, Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE -- Support is building in both the House and the Senate for passage of a bill to legalize the medical use of marijuana in Rhode Island, an idea endorsed by leaders of the General Assembly, the Rhode Island Medical Society and the Rhode Island State Nurses Association.

In the House, 50 lawmakers have signed on to the bill, including Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence. The lead sponsor, Rep. Thomas Slater, D-Providence, said House Speaker William J. Murphy, D-West Warwick, had pledged his support.

In the Senate, the cosponsors include Senate President Joseph Montalbano, D-North Providence; Majority Leader Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport; and Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, whose committee last night gave the bill its legislative debut for the year last night.

The bill proposes to protect patients, their caregivers and doctors from arrest if a doctor certifies to the Department of Health that the patient has a debilitating condition and the benefit of marijuana treatment would outweigh any health risks.

Among the illnesses that could be covered would be cancer, glaucoma, HIV-AIDS, hepatitis C, or another 'chronic or debilitating disease' that results in symptoms such as nausea, seizures, wasting, chronic pain or muscle spasms.

The patient or caregiver, who would be issued registration cards by the Department of Health, could not possess more than 12 plants, or 2.5 ounces of 'usable marijuana,' at any time.

Senate sponsor Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, said Rhode Island would be the 11th state to legalize the limited use of marijuana.

'We believe this bill is about compassion for those with serious illness and those who are on the precipice of dying,' she told colleagues.

Rhonda O'Donnell, 42, of Warwick, rolled her wheelchair to the witness stand and walked stiffly to the seat provided. She told senators she was a registered nurse and mother of two who has suffered the effects of multiple sclerosis for more than a decade.

O'Donnell said her symptoms include 'painful spasticity' and burning sensations in her legs. She takes 11 pills a day, does physical therapy and has had cortisone shots in her spine. Still, she said, some symptoms of her disease do not respond to traditional therapies.

She knows some people who have found relief from using marijuana, and said she would consider trying it herself to alleviate stiffness and pain, although she has not, so far.

'Please make this issue a medical one rather than a political one,' she said.

Warren Dolbashian, 33, of Cranston, said marijuana has helped address severe motor tics from Tourette's syndrome that dislocated his joints, and continuous pain after a series of surgeries. Marijuana, he said, has proven the best treatment to relieve his symptoms.

'It is not right to allow sick people to live in fear of arrest for using a doctor-approved medicine that works,' he said.

Kaelyn McGregor, whose cancer has spread from her breast to her lungs and bones, said smoking marijuana during chemotherapy helps patients 'normalize' their lives by minimizing nausea and alleviating physical symptoms of anxiety. And Dr. Margaret Sun, a family practitioner in East Providence, said marijuana immediately eases the symptoms of her own sister, who suffers from a severe, progressive case of multiple sclerosis.

The sponsors have their own personal stories. Perry's nephew died last year from AIDS, but never sought relief through marijuana, fearing arrest. Slater is undergoing cancer treatment, and said he would not rule out using the drug if his health worsened.

Dr. David Lewis, former director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown, said doctors generally don't dispute that marijuana can help some patients. The issue for some groups, he said, is whether to endorse using a drug that must be smoked and wouldn't be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

J. Michael Walker, chairman of the neuroscience department at Indiana University and a former Brown professor, said marijuana has painkilling properties akin to morphine. He said it can help some patients whom conventional treatments don't reach.

The bill also drew the support of AIDS Project Rhode Island and the American Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island chapter. But it drew critical letters from the national Drug-Free Schools Coalition and the group Drug-Free Kids: America's Challenge.

Sen. Leo Blais, R-Coventry, a pharmacist, also blasted the bill.

'We need to be crystal clear that this initiative is an initiative to legalize marijuana,' he said. 'The exemptions in the statute are large enough to drive a tank through.' Blais said marijuana has 'no accepted medical value,' and called it wrong to sanction violating federal law by citing 'a compassionate reason.'

Perry retorted that she did not support the broad legalization of any drugs.

The bill may face revisions. Sen. Joseph Polisena, D-Johnston, a cosponsor and nurse, said the provisions for prescribing marijuana must be narrow enough that recreational drug users can't use it as a shield.

Another cosponsor, Sen. Michael Damiani, D-East Providence, a retired police officer, noted that the bill has another issue: it does not answer how the patient acquires the drug, once sanctioned to use it.



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