Rhode Island medical marijuana measure moves on

May 19, 2005

Joe Baker, Newport Daily News

PROVIDENCE - The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow residents with debilitating diseases access to marijuana to ease their suffering.

The 9-2 vote was the first time any legislative committee has approved the bill, which has been introduced for the past five years. The bill will be considered by the full Senate next week.

The House of Representatives is considering similar legislation. That bill was co-sponsored by 50 of the 75 representatives, giving supporters confidence that the measure can win House approval.

Dedicating the bill to her nephew Edward O. Hawkins, who died of complications from AIDS in 2004, Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, said the bill would ease the suffering of people who have nowhere else to turn.

'It is time this bill passed so we can alleviate the pain, nausea and discomfort of these very ill people,' Perry said.

The legislation would allow those who get a doctor's referral to be certified by the Department of Health to legally possess up to 12 marijuana plants or 2.5 ounces of marijuana. The legislation also allows the patient to designate two 'primary caregivers' over the age of 21 who would assist the patient in obtaining marijuana. The caregivers also would have to be certified by the Department of Health.

Although the legislation does not address how the patient would obtain the illegal substance, it would allow nonprofit organizations, such as hospices, to 'acquire, possess, cultivate, manufacture, deliver, transfer, transport, supply or dispense marijuana' to qualifying patients.

Committee approval came after the bill was amended, stripping out a section that would subject local police officers to losing their jobs if they assisted federal police officers in arresting local patients allowed to use medical marijuana. The federal government does not recognize state-approved medical marijuana laws. Ten states now have such laws.

'I think this is going to help a lot of people,' said Sen. Joseph M. Polisena, D-Johnston.

Sen. Leo R. Blais, R-Coventry, one of two senators who opposed the bill, said he feared doctors who prescribed medical marijuana could open themselves up to lawsuits if a patient developed problems from smoking it. The other opponent was Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis, D-Coventry.

On Wednesday, David R. Gifford, director of the Department of Health, sent a letter to House Health, Education and Welfare Committee Chairman Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, opposing the legislation. Among the reasons Gifford gave for opposing the bill was that it conflicts with federal law and 'smoking marijuana plants can be harmful.'

Perry blasted Gifford for sending a letter and not showing up to testify against the bill so he could be questioned by legislators.

'This is not an area that Dr. Gifford knows much about,' Perry said.

Jeff Neal, spokesman for Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, said the governor had drafted a letter to be sent to senators stating his position, but Neal would not release the contents of the letter because he was not sure if the final version had been distributed.

Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, and Sen. Charles J. Levesque, D-Portsmouth, voted in favor of the bill.

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