RI Senate panel OKs marijuana use for medical purposes

May 19, 2005

Scott Mayerowitz, Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Islanders with cancer, AIDS and other serious illnesses would be allowed to use marijuana to alleviate their pain under a bill that cleared a key Senate committee last night.

Yesterday's vote on medical marijuana was the first time such legislation has cleared an Assembly committee. The House held a hearing on its own, slightly different, bill Wednesday but has yet to schedule a vote.

Ten states already have similar laws that protect patients, their caregivers and doctors from arrest under state law if a doctor certifies, to the state Department of Health, that a patient has a debilitating condition -- such as cancer, glaucoma, or AIDS -- that could be helped through marijuana.

'It is time that this bill is passed so that we can alleviate the pain, the nausea and the disorientation that occurs when many of these very ill people are on a variety of other painkillers,' said Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, the Senate sponsor.

The state would issue the patient and his or her caregiver registration cards that would authorize the possession of up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of 'usable marijuana' at any time.

Perry's bill and one by Rep. Thomas C. Slater, D-Providence, do not address where the marijuana would come from. Perry said seeds would be obtained from illegal sources.

That was a concern for Sen. Michael J. Damiani, D-East Providence, a former police officer who is apprehensive about 'enhancing the operation of the neighborhood drug dealer.'

Damiani said a 'clean source' needs to be found where there can be some quality control. That said, Damiani voted to send the bill on, hoping to amend it before a final vote.

Perry changed the bill yesterday, creating a new group of nonprofit organizations registered with the state to acquire, possess, cultivate and deliver marijuana. But again she didn't say where they would get the drug.

The organizations would have to register information about each employee and could not be within 500 feet of a school or building used for religious services. The amended bill also increases the minimum age for caregivers from 18 to 21 and expands the time the Department of Health has to review patient applications from 15 days to 30 days.

Sen. Joseph M. Polisena, D-Johnston, a registered nurse, said he was afraid that 'potheads' would abuse the law, but said its time had come.

Sen. Leo R. Blais, R-Coventry, a pharmacist, said if a doctor approves the use of marijuana, there needs to be protection from lawsuits for the patient's other doctors, nurses and pharmacists. He and Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis, D-Coventry, were the only nay votes.

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