In Rhode Island, Uncertainty About Medical Marijuana Law

June 29, 2005

Katie Zezima, New York TImes

Hearing that the Rhode Island legislature approved the use of medical marijuana Tuesday night, Rhonda O'Donnell sat in her Warwick, R.I., living room and giddily thought about legally sautéing the drug in some butter and putting it into a cake mix.

Ms. O'Donnell, 42, who has multiple sclerosis, hopes ingesting marijuana will ease the stiffness and numbness in her legs that leave her unable to work or move without pain.

'It's not going to cure me, and it's not going to let me walk normally, but hopefully it can make me a little less uncomfortable and allow me to relax a little more and enjoy life a little more,' Ms. O'Donnell, whose disease was diagnosed in 1994, said in a telephone interview.

But whether she can legally consume marijuana is uncertain. Gov. Donald L. Carcieri vetoed the bill Wednesday evening, saying it would encourage marijuana use, sanction criminal activity and make the drug more available to children.

Additionally, Mr. Carcieri said, it would lull residents into believing they could not be prosecuted for marijuana use, which remains a federal offense. The bill also does not have strong safety precautions, he said, and would allow patients to grow large amounts of marijuana with no guidelines for its disposal.

'This bill's noble goals cannot mask its serious safety flaws,' Mr. Carcieri, a Republican, wrote. 'This bill will increase the availability of marijuana on the streets of our state.'

It appears that proponents of the bill have the necessary three-fifths vote in each chamber of the legislature, both heavily Democratic, to override the veto. The bill passed the Senate 33 to 1 on Tuesday and was approved 52 to 10 last week in the House.

If the veto is overridden, Rhode Island will become the 11th state to allow medical marijuana, and the first to do so after the Supreme Court ruled this month that federal authorities could prosecute those who use the drug for medicinal use, even in states allowing it.

Mr. Carcieri's chief of policy and a group of legislators met on Tuesday with two officials in the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, an agency spokeswoman, Jennifer DeVallance, said. The agency presented state officials data showing that the drug was highly abused and had not been shown to be medicinally effective, Ms. DeVallance said.

'Obviously, this is not something that the federal government supports because the F.D.A. has not deemed that smoked marijuana is an appropriate medication for the variety of illnesses people claim it should be used for,' she said.

The bill would allow those with medical conditions including AIDS, cancer and glaucoma to receive what amounts to a signed prescription for marijuana from their primary care physician. The doctor, patient and person providing care would be entered into a registry kept by the state's Department of Public Health, which has 90 days to promulgate regulations.

The patient and attendant, who must be Rhode Island residents, would receive identification cards allowing them to cultivate up to 12 marijuana plants indoors or possess up to 2.5 ounces of the drug.

The patient, attendant, doctor and anyone present while the patient was ingesting marijuana would be exempt from prosecution. Landlords, schools and employers would be barred from refusing someone because they were enrolled in the medical marijuana program.

The Department of Health will issue a report on the program to the legislature by Jan. 1, 2007; if the legislature does not take action the bill will expire on June 30, 2007, and all marijuana will again be illegal.

The Rhode Island bill does not address how patients would obtain the drug. Its chief sponsor, State Senator Rhoda E. Perry, said patients would 'get it illegally, just like they do in the 10 other states.'

This worries law enforcement officials, who say the law will be difficult to enforce and that marijuana could easily find its way into the hands of those the bill is not intended to serve.

'We may very well see counterfeit registration cards, and then it becomes a quandary to figure out who legally possesses it with a card and which cards are false,' said Maj. Joseph R. Miech of the Rhode Island State Police.

But Ms. Perry and Representative Thomas C. Slater, who sponsored a similar bill in the House, say the legislation is a way to help ease the suffering of the sick and dying and is well-supported by residents. A poll taken last March by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit organization that promotes the legalization of marijuana, found that 69 percent of state residents supported a bill allowing the chronically ill to grow marijuana for medicinal use.

The issue has been a personal crusade for both Ms. Perry, whose nephew died of AIDS and refused to smoke marijuana for fear of arrest, and Mr. Slater, who has inoperable lung cancer and has seen three of his five siblings and his father suffer from cancer.

'It's an issue of compassion,' Mr. Slater said. 'It's an issue for those who are sick and dying and suffering and need that last-minute peace of mind.'

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