Vote Expected on Marijuana Bill in Spite of Court Ruling

June 06, 2005

Chris Barrett, Warwick Beacon (RI)

The Rhode Island Senate is set to vote on a bill today that would allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.  The vote comes only a day after the U.S.  Supreme Court ruled that federal authorities may prosecute people for using medical marijuana even if state law protects them from prosecution. In spite of the ruling, the Senate plans to vote on the bill.

'We've had it [the ruling] checked out by various lawyers as well as the ACLU at the national level the case today is solely the courts telling the Federal government they have a right to enforce the law,' Senate Press Secretary Greg Pare said.  'It provides states an even more compelling reason to enact laws to protect those suffering from chronic illnesses.'

Krissy Oechslin, assistant director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, said the Senate bill remains significant.

'It [the ruling] makes it more important for the state to pass medical marijuana laws because 99 percent of marijuana arrests are at the state level,' Oechslin said.

The Marijuana Policy Project is a nonprofit group based in Washington D.C.  that supports marijuana policy reform.

The Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act would allow patients with a debilitating medical condition such as cancer, AIDS or glaucoma to possess 12 marijuana plants and 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana if they receive proper medical documentation.  Patients, who must be at least 18 and their caregivers 21, would be required to register with the State Department of Health and receive registration cards.

Warwick resident Rhonda O'Donnell, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994, testified in favor of the bill.

'I'm not anti-medicine or anti-drugs,' O'Donnell said.  'I take tons of medication and it doesn't work.  I just want to try it [marijuana].'

Rep.  Joseph Faria ( D-Dist.  56, Central Falls ), who cosponsored the House version of the bill, hoped it would provide a means of relief for those suffering from chronic illnesses.

'I don't have a problem with it provided it's used properly,' he said.

Rhode Island Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S.  Jeremiah, Jr.  testified against the bill but did not take any stance on whether marijuana helps the chronically ill.  He said he is concerned that the bill is too broad and that it leaves many unanswered questions.

'Upon examining the Medical Marijuana Act, I see few safeguards in place,' Jeremiah wrote in a letter.

The letter expresses concerns about who would grow the marijuana and the ability for physicians to effectively monitor patient use.  Jeremiah said the proposed registration cards are subject to fraud and the bill would complicate existing Federal laws that classify marijuana as a controlled substance.

Rhode Island Gov.  Donald Carcieri also opposes the bill.

The bill includes 'a lot of troubling loopholes,' Carcieri Press Secretary Jeff Neal said.  'This legislation lacks sufficient controls on how medical marijuana would be produced and distributed.'

The State Police and Health Department have also opposed the bill.  They not return requests for comment by press time.

A former nurse at Rhode Island Hospital for six years, O'Donnell -- who has never used marijuana - said doctors have told her marijuana provides relief that medical science cannot replicate.

Approved medicines that include a synthetic version of the active ingredient found in marijuana -- tetrahydrocannabinol --such as Marinol are too expensive and do not provide the same benefits as marijuana, O'Donnell said.

'If you swallow a pill you can't control how much you've taken,' O'Donnell said.

Ten states already allow the medical use of marijuana.

Pare said Rhode Island state lawyers concluded the ruling only affects California's law.  The California law is unique because it requires the state to grow the marijuana.

Rhode Island's version specifies nonprofit organizations registered with the state cultivate and distribute the marijuana.  It does not name specific organizations.

Neal said the governor is concerned about the effects of yesterday's ruling.

'The Supreme Court ruling complicates the ability if individual states to authorize the use of medical marijuana,' Neal said.  'A state law would give Rhode Islanders a false sense of security [from prosecution].'

Oechslin said the bill has enough support to pass.

She cited a March 2004 survey conducted by Zogby International for the Marijuana Policy Project that found 69 percent of Rhode Islanders favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.

'I'd be very surprised if we don't see a bill go to the governor's desk,' Oechslin said.

O'Donnell said the sooner the better.

'I just don't see the holdup,' she said, 'why make people continue to suffer?'

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