R.I. House passes medical marijuana bill

June 22, 2005

Jim Baron, Pawtucket Times

With legislation to allow seriously ill people to use marijuana as medicine having passed both chambers of the General Assembly by veto-proof margins, Rep. Thomas Slater is calling on Gov. Donald Carcieri to withdraw his threat to veto the bill.
The House of Representatives passed a medical marijuana bill Wednesday by a 52-10 margin - after amending it to add Slater's name to the title. A slightly different version of the bill passed the Senate two weeks ago on a 34-2 vote.

'I hope the governor realizes that the people of Rhode Island support this bill by over 70 percent,' Slater told reporters after the vote.

Pointing out that there are sufficient yea votes in both the House and Senate to override a veto, Slater said the governor 'should take note of that and let it become law without his signature.'

That apparently won't be the case.

Spokesman Jeff Neal said, 'Governor Carcieri and every law enforcement officer in the state took an oath to uphold the laws of this country and this would place them in an untenable position. Federal law states that marijuana is a banned substance and the Supreme Court recently upheld the primacy of federal law over state law.'

Slater's bill was sent immediately to the Senate and later on Wednesday a similar Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry, was amended by the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee to make it identical with Slater's and passed to the full House.

If both chambers move expeditiously to pass each other's bills, Slater said, 'before the session is over we will know what the governor's decision is.'

Under the legislation, a seriously ill patient certified by the state Department of Health as having certain chronic or debilitating diseases such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease and up to two 'primary caregivers' would be immune from arrest, prosecution, forfeiture or other penalty for possessing up to 2.5 ounces of 'useable marijuana,' or 12 marijuana plants.

The primary caregiver must be over 21-years-old and not be a convicted drug felon.

The House version of the bill has a sunset provision and will expire June 30, 2007 if it is not renewed.

Before that time, the DOH will provide the legislature with a report detailing whether there have been any known abuses of the law or arrests connected with it.

Providence Rep. Steven Costantino, who sponsored earlier versions of the bill in previous years, said, 'To me, it has always been a matter of compassion, simple compassion.

'I've always been amused about the fear that something like this is going to cause this all of a sudden irrational move to do marijuana,' Costantino continued. 'That we are going to have an illegal substance out there that is not there right now. I have always been amused because I look at some of the legal drugs -- alcohol, the most abused drug ever. One of the most abused prescribed drugs, vicadin, has caused more harm in this society than any illegal drug like marijuana could ever (do).'

Costantino said he has not seen problems in any of the other 10 states that allow the use of medical marijuana.

'What I have read is that people who are ill, people who are in pain, whether it is cancer or glaucoma or wasting away because of HIV and AIDS, their pain is being reduced. And their quality of life, their end-of-life issues are maybe as not as bad' as someone who doesn't use medical marijuana, he said.

Rep. Joseph McNamara, who chairs the House HEW committee answered questions about federal prohibition by quoting a federal Drug Enforcement Administration official as saying 'the vast majority of our cases are against those involved in trafficking and major cultivation and distribution. We don't target sick and dying people.'

Among those voting against the bill were Lincoln Rep. Rene Menard who said a vote in favor would be tantamount to condoning the illegal sale of a controlled substance. 'Someone is going to purchase it illegally to use it legally. What happens if that dealer sells to my kid?' Menard asked.

Pointing to the two-year sunset provision, Warwick Rep. Al Gemma said, 'let's try it, what have we got to lose?'

Gemma said he would break the law to get marijuana 'for someone in their last days.'

Minority Leader Robert Watson, who frequently complains about the influence of special interests at the Statehouse, said the federal government 'has a gorilla in the game when you have the pharmaceutical industry in Washington, DC with their heavy-handedness.'

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