Pros, cons of medical marijuana get hearing

May 18, 2005

Liz Anderson, Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE -- Lawmakers with their own family stories of cancer treatments and patients who have suffered the agony of debilitating diseases stepped forward last night to urge a House committee to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

But the bill, which appears to be gaining steam in both chambers of the Assembly, also drew opposition from both the Carcieri administration and state police, and concerns from a chief state court judge.

The House Health, Education and Welfare Committee did not vote on the bill, which has been sponsored by two-thirds of the chamber's members. But the committee chairman, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, expressed a willingness to work on the issue.

'I don't think anyone I've talked to is against giving people who are chronically ill any substance that can help them,' he said before the hearing. McNamara said his concerns were the safety of the drug, and 'instituting proper controls' on its use. 

The bill would make Rhode Island the 11th state to protect patients, their caregivers and doctors from arrest under state drug laws if a doctor certifies, to the state Health Department, that a patient has a debilitating condition -- such as cancer, glaucoma, nausea, or AIDS -- that could be helped through marijuana.

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. The bill does not address where the marijuana would come from.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill in early April, and tonight is expected to pass it to the full Senate for a floor vote.

Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, said there would be several changes proposed before its approval, including language to 'tighten up' Health Department controls.

The House sponsor, Rep. Thomas C. Slater, D-Providence, said he had been told the Senate planned to increase the minimum age for a sanctioned caregiver from 18 to 21, and increase the time the Department of Health has to review an application, among other tweaks.

Slater said he was discussing other potential changes in the House committee, including reducing the amount of marijuana allowed at any given time and requiring the Health Department to distribute the drug.

In a March 2004 poll for the Marijuana Policy Project, Zogby International asked Rhode Island residents whether they would support a bill 'that would allow people with cancer, AIDS and other serious illnesses to use and grow their own marijuana for medical purposes, as long as their physician approves.' The response was 69 percent in favor, 26 percent opposed, and 5 percent unsure.

Still, Governor Carcieri's administration yesterday opposed the change. In a letter to the committee, Dr. David Gifford, director of the Department of Health, noted the bill does not address how people would get the drug, and said asking the state to regulate it 'is problematic.' 

Gifford also wrote that the 'principle active ingredient' in marijuana -- THC -- is available in pill form, and contended smoking marijuana plants 'does not appear to be superior' as a treatment. (The patients who testified strongly disagreed, saying many people found the pill ineffective.)

The bill also drew opposition from the state police and from Rhode Island Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, who sent lobbyist David Tassoni to express concern that legalizing medical marijuana could make the drug more accessible generally and undo the court's work to crack down on marijuana use among young people.

Tassoni suggested the bill needed serious 'tweaking.'

Lt. LeRoy Rose, of the Rhode Island State Police, said the bill did not define what constituted a 'debilitating disease' and suggested legalizing marijuana could potentially increase the state's already high number of drug and alcohol fatalities. 

Also, he said, if someone licensed to use marijuana is in a car accident and under the influence of the drug, the bill protects them from prosecution -- a protection not afforded someone who has become drowsy from a prescribed painkiller.

Slater, the House sponsor, knows the pain cancer can cause. His father, uncle and brother died of the disease; of six siblings, four -- including him -- have been cancer patients. Slater was diagnosed two years ago with breast cancer, which spread to his lungs; he begins radiation therapy this summer for an unrelated diagnosis of prostate cancer.

He said his own experience has made him more compassionate about the issue, though, 'I'm not that sick that I think I would need [marijuana]' now.

'People who really need it are those on their final days who can't eat, can't keep anything down,' he said, or who are in constant pain. Rep. Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, spoke of losing a brother to cancer, and more recently, a cousin. His brother, he said, wasted away from an athletic 220 pounds to less than 100 pounds before his death.

The bill, he said, is 'not about illicit use of marijuana in the streets . . . This is compassion in its greatest form.'

Among the groups supporting the measure are the Rhode Island Medical Society, the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians, the American Bar Association, and AIDS Project Rhode Island.

Patients such as Debra Nievera, of Coventry, who said she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and Crohn's disease, urged the bill's passage. Nievera, a slender woman with long curly hair, told the committee that traditional treatments haven't provided relief for her pain, so 'I am seeking alternatives that will somehow allow me to lead a normal life.'

'Take a good look at me,' she said. 'Do I look like somebody who should be arrested or thrown in jail because I choose to use medical marijuana to help me with my pain?'

The committee also heard from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stockbroker Irvin Rosenfeld, who said he is one of a handful of surviving patients who legally receive marijuana through a federal program.

Rosenfeld said he joined the program in 1982 and is regularly shipped 300 cigarettes at a time in a tin. By his account, he smokes up to a dozen marijuana cigarettes a day to successfully alleviate the pain from a condition that causes him to sprout painful tumors on the ends of his bones.

The program was discontinued a decade later, and the federal government has not shown a willingness to address the issue since, Rosenfeld said, leaving it up to the states to act.


 



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