Senate Judiciary Committee hears medical marijuana testimony
April 05, 2005
Mary-Catherine Lader, Brown Daily HeraldChronically ill Rhode Islanders, medical experts and advocates testified in favor of the Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon at the State House. Although State Sen. Leo Blais, R, expressed animated opposition to the bill early into the proceedings, there were no witnesses testifying against the measure. If passed, the bill will allow chronically ill individuals and their caregivers to acquire and cultivate marijuana with protection from prosecution and arrest. Qualifying medical conditions include cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and illnesses that cause severe symptoms alleviated by marijuana use, such as nausea or seizures. Ten states have passed similar measures, most through voter initiatives, but medical use of the drug remains illegal at the federal level.
'We believe this bill is about compassion for those with serious illness and those on the precipice of dying,' said the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Rhoda Perry P'91, a Democrat who represents College Hill and serves on the judiciary committee. The committee's chair, Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D, and two of its other members, Democratic Senators Michael Damiani and Joseph Polisena, are co-sponsors - a 'very rare' combination, Polisena said.
Despite such pre-existing support, legislators questioned each witness and raised concerns about whether the bill's language might allow for abuse of the drug. Each of the sponsors said at least once that they opposed the legalization of marijuana in general, and Polisena said he had 'second thoughts' about the issue. 'I need to be thoroughly convinced today,' he said as the hearings began.
Rhonda O'Donnell, a Warwick native diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly 11 years ago, told the committee that although she had not used marijuana to alleviate pain, she knew the substance would make a difference in her own daily life. 'I urge you to avoid playing politics with medicine and pass this bill today,' O'Donnell said.
After O'Donnell's testimony, Blais voiced opposition to the measure in a speech that Perry later said was 'nasty, hostile and partisan politics.'
'The holes in this legislation are large enough to drive a tank through,' Blais said. 'Anyone with a straight face who has a back spasm can qualify for medical marijuana (if the bill is passed).'
As a pharmacist, Blais said he believed there was 'no accepted medical value in any study' that demonstrated marijuana was a uniquely useful substance. 'We are a society of laws, and we are fooling ourselves and our constituents if we pretend it is OK to violate federal law because of ... compassion,' he said, and left the hearing.
After Blais' departure, two medical professionals and a neuroscience professor testified to marijuana's medical value. A breast cancer survivor and Tourette's syndrome sufferer also testified to the relief marijuana would have for their respective conditions.
Dr. David Lewis, founder of Brown's Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies and a current professor of medicine, said that some medical organizations oppose medical marijuana because of the unlikelihood of FDA approval and danger of smoking in general, but allowing it 'really makes sense for patients.'
Lewis dismissed Polisena's concerns that by not definitively listing the conditions eligible for legal marijuana use, the bill would allow increased use of the drug through unwarranted prescriptions. 'Medical judgment should not be replaced by detailed language,' Lewis said.
J. Michael Walker, formerly chair of the psychology department at Brown and currently a professor at the University of Indiana, said his research into cannabinoids 'shows clearly that these compounds behave like morphine.'
'Any suggestion these compounds are just making people high is absolutely incorrect,' Walker said.
The Director of AIDS Project R.I., Chris Butler, and the American Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island Director also testified.
Nathaniel Lepp '06, who had helped coordinate the witnesses' testimony as executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, said he was pleased with the hearing's outcome. 'I think it will work out,' Lepp said.
Lepp said he was both unfazed and unsurprised by Blais' vocal opposition, particularly given the senator's occupation. 'He sells pills to people for a living,' Lepp said, adding that legalized medical use of marijuana would affect sales of pain medication.
If passed by the judiciary committee, the bill will face a floor vote in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, 50 out of 75 legislators have expressed support for an identical bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Tom Slater. Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 has made no statement on the matter. Though the bill can pass without his signature and override a veto with three-fifths of the votes of all those present, Lepp identified the governor's office as RIPAC's next major focus.
In an effort to communicate citizen support for the bill, RIPAC will be canvassing and distributing postcards, urging voters to call or mail the governor's office and express support for the measure.
Trevor Stutz '07, president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, estimated that 15 SSDP supporters had attended the hearings from the University of Rhode Island and Brown. 'Especially with the stigma that still lingers around a drug policy group, having tons of people show up at a three-hour Senate hearing and sit there the whole time is substantial,' Stutz said.
As the hearing drew to a close, Damiani explained his support for the bill despite his previous opposition to it and career as a police officer. 'No one can accuse me of being soft on drugs. ... (But) in the past couple years I've watched a lot of people die from cancer,' Damiani said. He added that there were a few 'bugs' in the legislation but expressed confidence that they would be worked out.
'As long as smoking grass makes people who probably aren't going to be around much longer feel better, it's a halfway decent idea to me,' Damiani said.