R.I. may allow medical marijuana

June 27, 2005

Sarah Schweitzer, Boson Globe

Rhode Island is poised to become the 11th state in the nation to permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, with the divisive proposal expected to win final passage today and reach the governor's desk tomorrow.

Governor Donald L. Carcieri has said he will probably veto the bill, but supporters say they have the votes needed to override his veto.

The legislation advance at a critical juncture in the battle over the issue. Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled that medicinal marijuana users can be prosecuted under federal law, even if their home states allow use of the drug. Last week, federal drug agents raided medicinal marijuana dispensaries in Northern California and arrested nearly two-dozen people.

In Rhode Island, the legislative fight has been propelled by deeply personal stories. The bill is named for state Senator Rhoda Perry's nephew, who died last year from complications of AIDS and lymphoma and whose doctors had recommended marijuana to ease his nausea. On the House side, the bill's sponsor is Representative Thomas Slater, who has undergone treatment for both lung and prostate cancer.

''Would I really take marijuana? I don't know,' said Slater, a Providence Democrat who is 64 and added that three of his six siblings have also battled cancer. ''I just want the option out there for people. If they feel it would help them and a doctor feels it would help them, then I want them to have the option to use it without fear of state prosecution.'

Slater and other supporters say their legislation is limited enough to prevent abuse of marijuana.

The bill would exempt from arrest only patients -- along with their doctors, pharmacists, and caregivers -- whose doctors certified to the state Department of Health that the patient had pain from a ''chronic or debilitating' medical condition, such as cancer or AIDS, that might be eased by marijuana. Such patients would be given state registration cards that would allow them and their caregivers to possess up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of ''usable marijuana' at any time.

The law would apply only to Rhode Island residents. Moreover, users would be required to store the drug indoors; there will be no dispensaries. That, backers say, is a key difference from California that should make it easier to keep track of marijuana users.

''There won't even be the opportunity to grow large amounts, because it will have to be grown indoors, not outside,' said Perry, a Providence Democrat. ''We're also not San Francisco. We don't have huge numbers of people and dispensaries.'

Passage of the law in Rhode Island would leave New England evenly divided over the issue of medicinal marijuana. Vermont and Maine permit its use.

In Connecticut, legislation passed the state Senate, but died in the House this year. In New Hampshire, legislation was defeated this year, as well, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit group that opposes prohibition of marijuana. A bill in Massachusetts is in a legislative committee.

The other states allowing use of medicinal marijuana are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

In Rhode Island, the legislation has been offered a half-dozen times. The first five times, the bill died in committee. This year it passed both houses by a wide margins.

A spokesman for Rhode Island's governor has said that Carcieri is ''strongly inclined' to veto the legislation because of concerns that permitting use of marijuana would put state law enforcement officials in conflict with federal law, which bars the use of marijuana for any reason.

''The [US] Supreme Court said federal law preempts any efforts by the state to authorize the use of marijuana for any purpose, including medicinal,' said Jeff Neal, the governor's spokesman, ''so asking law enforcement officials to violate their oath and allow individuals to knowingly violate federal law is a very difficult position to put them in.'

Despite the legal murkiness, supporters are buoyant about the bill's prospects. ''We know there is always the chance of federal prosecution,' Slater said. ''But the DEA has said they would not go after the sick and dying, and we don't think they will in Rhode Island.'

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.



Be the first to Comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.