Medical Marijuana Act passes RI state legislature

July 17, 2005

Mary-Catherine Lader, Brown Daily Herald

The Rhode Island General Assembly is one step away from making the Ocean State the eleventh U.S. state to legalize the medical use of marijuana by the chronically ill. After the House voted 52-10 in favor of the bill on June 22, Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 vetoed the legislation, prompting a Senate override vote of 28-6 only four days later. The bill now awaits a House override vote in September before being made law.

Carcieri's veto was expected and presented no serious challenges to the success of the legislation, said the bill's lead House sponsor, Rep. Tom Slater, D-Providence.

The bill - also referred to as the 'pot-for-pain bill' - will protect patients, their doctors, pharmacists and caregivers from arrest and prosecution under state law if a Department of Health-certified doctor determines marijuana a useful form of pain relief for a patient. Individuals suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses causing symptoms alleviated by use of the drug, including nausea and seizures, will be eligible for use, pending Department of Health approval.

However, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that state laws sanctioning medical marijuana use provide no defense against enforcement of federal anti-drug laws by federal agencies.

How illegal marijuana would find its way to a legally approved user remains unaddressed in the final version of the bill. But Slater said this ignores the purpose of the legislation, which aims simply to protect medical marijuana users from arrest.

'I told them on the floor, (debate over acquiring) was irrelevant,' Slater said. '(The patient) can get it themselves - it's readily available all over the state.'

In an effort to protect children from stumbling across the drug outdoors, representatives added language specifying the plants be kept in an indoor facility. House members also included clauses that disqualified individuals with a felony record from serving as caregivers and limited the number of patients to whom doctors could recommend the drug in order to prevent possible abuse of the legislation.

Slater said that more serious than any of these changes was the addition of a 'sunset' clause. According to this stipulation, the Department of Health would report back to the State House on the law's success on Jan. 1, 2007, and unless legislators vote for its renewal, the law would expire June 30 of that year.

'Hopefully, at that point things will be functioning smoothly just as they have in every other (of the 10 states with similar legislation),' said Trevor Stutz '07, outgoing president of the Brown chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

SSDP kept its members updated on the bill's progress over the past few months, at times urging them to sign a petition to the governor or to write letters and call legislators to voice their support of medical marijuana use. Stutz said SSDP and the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, whose executive director is Nathaniel Lepp '06, will work together this fall to inform the community of the legislation's impact.

Slater credited such public involvement, in addition to strong lobbying, with the bill's success. He said one representative received 50 calls from constituents - all of them in support of the bill.

'Everyone knows someone who has one of these chronic diseases who would like relief,' Slater, a cancer survivor, said. 'The only challenge left now is how the Department of Health makes up its regulations on it - how they will control it, how they will see the cards are given out. Then it's up to the individual to get a hold of the drug.'

Though Slater is confident of the bill's prospects in an as-yet unscheduled House override vote this fall, he is hesitant to celebrate too soon.

'Once it's all finished in September, it will be a great victory,' he said.

Once issued registration cards by the Department of Health, patients or their caregivers could possess up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of 'usable marijuana' at any time. A specific amount was not included in the original bill, which passed the state Senate - sponsored chiefly by Sen. Rhoda Perry P'98, D-Providence - largely unaltered earlier in June.

Debate on the floor of the House led to that change, among others, after representatives raised concerns about the drug's possible accessibility to children, and the remaining illegal step - acquiring marijuana - after testimony against the bill from state police officials and a representative from the Family Court.

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