Advocates push for medical marijuana bill in VT

March 07, 2004

Associated Press, Times-Argus

BURLINGTON - Some advocates of medical marijuana want last week's overwhelming vote in Burlington to send a message to lawmakers that they want legislative action and they hope one lawmaker can make the difference.

Supporters of medicinal marijuana consider Rep. Bill Keogh, D-Burlington, critical in the vote to pass a bill legalizing the substance this year. Keogh, also a Burlington city councilor representing the South End, said he supports the bill, but its status is not up to him. A bill's status is up to the committee chair, Keogh said.

The bill is sitting in a House committee in Montpelier awaiting action. Committee Chairman Tom Koch, R-Barre, said it's unlikely the bill will get much further this session.

'It's all pressure that group is going to put on me,' Keogh said of the Vermont chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which sent out a news release identifying him as the committee's swing vote. Keogh said he received numerous post cards urging him to support the bill and, on Town Meeting Day, his district was peppered with signs supporting the measure.

Tuesday, 82 percent of Burlington voters said they favored legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. The vote is advisory and is not binding. Those who support the measure hope the Burlington vote will give the bill a chance to pass this legislative session.

'It is to send a message,' said Hardy Machia, president of Vermont NORML. 'It's really straight from the voters.'

A majority vote in the House Health and Welfare Committee could free the legislation from limbo, but the vote is split, Machia said. In the middle is Keogh, Machia said.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, agreed.

'It's certainly a signal to Burlington legislators that voters support this,' Zuckerman said of the citywide vote. 'I think it encourages Rep. Keogh to put more effort in to pass it out of committee.'

In 2002, the House passed a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana, but it never made it out of the Senate. Keogh supported that bill.

This session, the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 22-7. The issue awaits action in the House.

The bill under consideration would exempt patients with certain chronic conditions or illnesses - cancer, HIV and glaucoma, for example - from arrest and prosecution for possession of limited amounts of marijuana.

The committee is split pretty evenly on the issue, Koch said. A majority of the 11 committee members would have to vote to bring the bill up for discussion, 'but I think that would throw a monkey wrench into the committee schedule,' Koch said.

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