R.I. Senate Approves Proposal to Legalize Medical

June 07, 2005

Katherine Gregg, Providence Journal

Despite the threat of a veto by the governor -- and a pointed reminder this week from the nation's highest court that federal authorities can still prosecute sick people who smoke pot -- the state Senate yesterday approved a bill to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

In sharp contrast to neighboring Connecticut, where deeply divided lawmakers debated the same issue for hours last week, the bill cleared the Rhode Island Senate by a 34-to-2 vote after little debate.

If the House goes along, Rhode Island would become the 11th state to allow people with 'debilitating medical conditions' to buy, grow, possess and use relatively small amounts of marijuana to ease their pain.

Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, made a failed effort to remove language limiting the powers of the police to arrest people authorized to smoke marijuana who operate a car, an aircraft or a motorboat.

Raptakis' amendment was roundly defeated amid an emotion-charged atmosphere, in which one senator, Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, sought passage of the bill in the name of her nephew, Edward O. Hawkins, who died of AIDS last year at age 41.

Perry read the eulogy she wrote for her nephew. It began: 'A darling and photogenic boy, his mother knew by age 6 that he would grow up gay.'

It ended with images from his final days: 'hacking cough, erupting fluids . . . morphine-induced dementia . . .face desiccated like a baby bird just out of its shell.'

After the final vote, Perry turned and hugged Hawkins' mother and her sister, Pamela A. Bailey, who was sitting behind her.

At an impromptu news conference a few minutes later, Perry acknowledged what had gone unsaid during the brief Senate discussion of the bill, which is cosponsored by Senators Michael Damiani, a former police officer, Joseph Polisena, a nurse, and Michael McCaffrey, a lawyer.

Asked where an authorized user would get marijuana, Perry said: 'I think most people know the answer to that right now. The drugs have to come from an illegal source.'

The bill seeks to protect patients, their doctors, pharmacists and caregivers from arrest under state drug laws if a doctor certifies to the state Health Department that the patient has pain from a 'chronic or debilitating' medical condition, such as cancer or AIDS, that might be eased by marijuana.

The state would issue registration cards allowing the patients and their caregivers to possess up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of 'useable marijuana' at any time.

The bill says: 'No school, employer or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ or lease to' an authorized user or caregiver, who could be anyone at least 21 years old 'who has agreed to assist with the person's medical use of marijuana.'

But the bill does not address where the marijuana would come from, one of many points of concern for the state Health Department, the state police and the governor, who has threatened a veto.

In testimony last month before a House committee, state police officers said the bill does not define what constitutes a 'debilitating disease,' and could increase the state's already high number of drug and alcohol fatalities.

If, for example, someone who is authorized to use marijuana is in a car accident, Lt. LeRoy Rose told the lawmakers, the bill would give the person a protection from prosecution not afforded someone made drowsy by a prescribed painkiller.

Responding yesterday, Perry said: 'I couldn't imagine my nephew thinking about driving a car when he was as sick as he was.'

Sen. Charles J. Levesque, D-Portsmouth, said the police could still charge an impaired driver for a driving offense, but not 'solely' for the presence of marijuana, which can linger in the body for days.

Governor Carcieri's spokesman Jeff Neal said that Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling compounds Carcieri's concerns, in that it 'complicates the ability of individual states to authorize the use of medical marijuana.' He said it 'would give Rhode Island citizens a false sense of security' by placing them in danger of federal prosecution.

The court ruled that the power of Congress to prohibit and prosecute the possession and use of marijuana trumps state law, even in the states that permit its use for medicinal purposes. The 10 states that already have such laws are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Arizona has enacted legislation, but has no formal program to provide pot by prescription.

Neal said the governor 'supports reasonable efforts to make sure that patients suffering from debilitating diseases receive the pain relief they need and deserve.'

But, he said, Carcieri believes the legislation would 'allow virtually anyone in Rhode Island to grow and distribute large quantities of marijuana almost anywhere they wanted. . . . Marijuana farms could sprout up anywhere in this state.'

'The governor believes this legislation does not have sufficient controls on how marijuana would be produced or distributed,' Neal said. He said Carcieri is also concerned because his health director is opposed, and because law enforcement and the chief judge of the Family Court 'believe a medical marijuana law would seriously undermine our efforts to reduce children's use of marijuana and other narcotics.'

But an elated Perry suggested that yesterday's overwhelming vote makes the bill 'veto-proof' in the Senate, and she voiced hope that it would clear the House by a similar margin. The only nay votes came from Raptakis and Sen. Marc Cote, D-Woonsocket. Senators Leo Blais, R-Coventry, and Frank A. Ciccone III, D-Providence, were absent.

After listening from the sidelines, Rhonda O'Donnell, 42, of Warwick, who has multiple sclerosis, said fear of arrest keeps her from smoking marijuana. But she believes it might help her pain, and said she would not allow the fear of federal prosecution to stop her if state law permits its use.

Why? 'Because I think the feds should have a lot more on their plate than somebody using a medicinal herb in their backyard or in their house,' O'Donnell said.

As for driving, O'Donnell, who drove herself to yesterday's hearing, said: 'What about people who get Vicodin? I think common sense has to prevail and if you are using it for a legitimate purpose that your doctor approved, you are going to know enough not to drive.'

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