RI marijuana legislation may be 'veto proof'

June 15, 2005

Scott Mayerowitz, Providence Journal (RI)

The push to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons is heating up.

As a House committee yesterday voted 10-2 in favor of the legalization, a national advocacy group started airing ads on network and cable TV urging Governor Carcieri to back away from his threat to veto the legislation.

The Senate passed a version of the measure 34 to 2 last Tuesday, and after last night's vote in the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, the full House could be voting by tomorrow.

The bill seeks to protect patients, their doctors, pharmacists and caregivers from arrest under state drug laws if a doctor certifies to the state Department of Health 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 'usable marijuana' at any time.

Several changes were made yesterday to the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Thomas C. Slater, D-Providence.

Slater added a sunset provision, repealing the law on June 30, 2007. The Department of Health would need to provide a report to lawmakers by Jan. 1 of that year on how the program is working. Lawmakers would then decide if they want to renew the law.

The registration cards given to patients and their caregivers must now include a photograph in addition to their name, address, date of birth and other identifying information. Previously, the photo was optional.

The list of people registered will be confidential. However, the latest version of the bill includes a provision requiring the state to notify state and local law enforcement of the number of qualified patients in each community.

Caregivers cannot have a felony drug conviction.

Plants must 'be stored in an indoor facility.' There was some concern about plants being grown in outdoor locations where others -- such as residents of a multifamily house -- might gain access.

Slater also named his bill in memory of Sen. Rhoda Perry's nephew, Edward O. Hawkins, who died of AIDS last year at age 41. Perry, D-Providence, is the Senate sponsor of the medical marijuana legislation, also named in the memory of Hawkins.

The legislation still does not provide a way for people to get the drug, leaving that presumably up to illegal channels.

Ten states have such laws: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Arizona has enacted legislation, but has no formal program to provide marijuana by prescription.

Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that users of medical marijuana in the states that permit it can be prosecuted by federal authorities, but that hasn't stopped the legislation's movement here.

Slater last night said the bill appears 'veto proof.' The Senate passed the legislation with enough votes to override. Fifty of the House's 75 members signed onto -- but have yet to vote for -- the bill; enough to override.

The Marijuana Policy Project launched its TV ad campaign yesterday, according to Neal Levine, director of state policies for the Washington D.C. advocacy group.

'It looks incredibly likely that this is going to the governor's desk,' he said. 'We're trying to let the governor know how many people in the state support this.'

He would not say how much the campaign costs or how long it will run.

The commercials feature Rhonda O'Donnell, a Warwick registered nurse who has testified several times about how she has suffered from the effects of multiple sclerosis for more than a decade.

'It shouldn't be a crime to follow my doctor's advice,' she says in one ad.

The governor's office got 174 phone calls on the issue yesterday -- the 'vast majority' were in favor of legalization -- according to Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal. Almost every call, he said, appeared to be forwarded from an advocacy group doing mass phone calls.

Slater last night mentioned a March 2004 poll for the Marijuana Policy Project where 69 percent of Rhode Islanders said they support a bill like his.

'It's big out there in the public,' Slater said. 'I think that the governor usually listens to the public and I hope he listens to the public this time.'

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