Medical-marijuana debate continues

May 18, 2005

Joe Baker, Newport Daily News

PROVIDENCE - When he was 10 years old, Irving Rosenfeld was diagnosed with multiple congenital cartilaginous exostosis, a long description for a condition that means painful tumors grow on his bones. The tumors cause severe muscle spasm and tears. Doctors told him he'd be lucky to make it through his teenage years.

But on Wednesday, Rosenfeld, now 52 and a successful stockbroker, was in Rhode Island to share his success story. Testifying before the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, Rosenfeld held up a round aluminum tin containing the drug he claims has allowed him to lead a normal life.

'I think it's the fountain of youth as far as I'm concerned,' Rosenfeld said as he displayed a plastic baggie containing 10 marijuana cigarettes.

Despite the presence of a Rhode Island state trooper, Rosenfeld did not fear arrest for pot possession. One of six Americans in the federal government's medical marijuana program, Rosenfeld has been getting 300 marijuana cigarettes every month since 1982 from Uncle Sam. The marijuana is grown in a lab on the University of Mississippi campus.

Then-President George H.W. Bush shut the program down in 1992, but those already in the program continue to receive their monthly dosages. Wednesday, Rosenfeld tried to convince legislators that Rhode Island should become the 11th state to approve its own medical marijuana legislation.

'This is a federal issue. It should not be a state issue,' Rosenfeld said. 'But guess what? The federal government isn't doing anything.'

Despite growing support from the medical community, the federal government has fought various state efforts to make marijuana available for those with debilitating diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.

The bill being debated Wednesday, sponsored by Rep. Thomas C. Slater, D-Providence, is identical to a Senate version sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, which is scheduled for a committee vote this afternoon.

Supporters tried to convince committee members that they wouldn't be legalizing 'reefer madness,' just showing compassion for those with serious and painful diseases.

Rep. Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, told committee members that two years ago his brother, father of Salve Regina University baseball star Damien Costantino, died of cancer. Before his death, his brother went from 220 pounds to 90 pounds, Costantino said, because the illness stripped him of his appetite. Marijuana may have helped ease his suffering, and by extension, the suffering his family had to endure watching him waste away, Costantino said.

'This is about an end-of-life issue,' Costantino said. 'This allows someone to die with dignity.'

Kaelyn McGregor, director of administration and vice president of research at Brown University, said she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and doctors have told her she has no more than seven years to live. Her chemotherapy leaves her weak, nauseous and unable to eat and get a full night's sleep. But if she smokes as little as half a joint, she can eat, her nausea is controlled and she can sleep through the night, McGregor told the committee.

The legislation would allow a patient with defined symptoms or diseases to get an identification card from the state Department of Health allowing him or her to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana for medical use. The marijuana would have to be prescribed by a licensed physician.

Some committee members, including Chairman Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, were concerned that the bill did not establish any system for distribution of the marijuana, meaning patients would still have to depend on street dealers to get their stash.

'Our challenge is to develop some language so we can be confident that there is some control of regulation and distribution,' McNamara said.

Rhode Island State Police Lt. LeRoy Rose testified against the legislation. Rose said the bill as written would not allow police to charge someone for driving under the influence of marijuana if he or she had a legal prescription. David Tassoni, representing the Family Court, said he was concerned about increasing access of marijuana to children.

Rep. John J. Loughlin II, R-Tiverton, the only local legislator on the committee, said his research indicated marijuana was not classified as a medicine and 'it is impossible to determine what is an effective dosage.'

Steve Brown, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was inappropriate to kill the legislation because a few people might abuse the law to smoke marijuana recreationally. Lawmakers don't do that for regularly abused prescription drugs such as Valium, Brown said.

'To prohibit people who are dying (from using a helpful drug) on the theoretical possibility that there are some people out there who will use the drug and might get into an accident is really pitiful,' Brown said.

The committee did not take a vote on the bill Wednesday. Slater said he was confident the bill would be voted out of committee. He said if McNamara's committee refused to vote it out, he would seek to get it transferred to Costantino's House Finance Committee on the basis that the Department of Health might need money to implement the law.

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