Pot Veto Not Enough

January 03, 2006

Jim Baron, Pawtucket Times (RI)

In a series of lopsided votes cast even before they officially opened their 2006 sessions, the House and Senate Tuesday overrode Gov. Donald Carcieri's vetoes of identical 2005 bills that remove the threat of arrest, prosecution and forfeiture by state and local authorities of people who use marijuana to relieve pain, nausea and other symptoms as recommended by a doctor.

"I am no longer in the position where I have to fear my door will get busted down," Warren Dolbashian, a Cranston man with Tourette's syndrome, told reporters at a news conference called after the House votes. "It's like a dream come true."

Sen. Rhoda Perry, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said she hopes the new law will be "up and functional" with rules and regulations promulgated by the state Department of Health, within six months. "But I'm not positive about that," she added.

Rep. Thomas Slater, the House sponsor, said he wanted DOH to get new rules written "in the next 30-35 days."

The House overrode the governor's veto 59-13 on the House measure and 58-13 on the Senate bill. The override required at least 44 votes. The Senate cast a 30-5 vote to override the veto of the House bill. It had voted to override the veto of the Senate version last July.

The measure eliminates penalties, fines and forfeiture connected with marijuana posession of up to 2.5 ounces for a patient (recommended by a doctor and registered with the Department of Health) with a "debilitating medical condition" and two principal caregivers. The law makes no provision for a legal way to obtain the drug.

In a release issued after the vote, Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal said, "this bill will encourage criminal activity because it does not provide any means for the legal purchase of medical marijuana.Users will be forced to purchase marijuana in the illegal street market, putting them at risk and complicating the difficult jobs that our law enforcement personnel must do every day."

"The bill places no restriction over where marijuana will be cultivated and stored," Neal continued. "Marijuana operations would be permitted in any neighborhood in the state.There are few qualifications for the ‘caregivers’ who would be allowed to provide marijuana to users.Additionally, the definition of which medical conditions qualify one for use of marijuana is so broad that it would allow nearly any Rhode Islander to be a user."

Also, he said, "this bill appears to violate federal law. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that state laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana do not trump federal laws criminalizing marijuana.Rhode Islanders who rely on state law can still be prosecuted criminally by the federal government."

"Currently, Rhode Island laws show no mercy to cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS patients who are trying to allay their suffering," Slater told his House colleagues during the debate.

He said 10 other states have "realized it makes no sense to make people criminals for following their doctor's advice and relieving their pain. The sky has not fallen and thousands of people live in less pain and less terror.

"The seriously ill no longer have to live in fear for using a medicine that works," Slater said. "They no longer have to worry that police will barge into their homes, that their children will be taken from them or that they will spend their dying days alone in a cell."

Slater told his fellow representatives, "the issue is a personal one for me, as I currently have cancer. There may come a time when I want to explore the possibility of using marijuana for medical purposes. I shouldn't have to risk the indignity of arrest or prosecution for pursuing something to relieve my pain.

"Our state law does not have any business criminalizing the seriously ill for following their doctors advice," Slater declared.

Of the no votes, seven were cast by Republicans and six by members of the so-called "dissident Democrat" faction opposed to House Speaker William Murphy.

Minority Leader Robert Watson, who supported the bill's passage, said he would not vote to override the governor of his party. "Symbolically today, I shall cast a vote with my governor, and his right to veto legislation. I happen to believe that if there were enough votes today to sustain the governor's veto, we would work diligently and in short order we would pass a medical marijuana bill that may very well have addressed some of the issues that the governor correctly recognized as issues that need to be resolved before we can pass a non-flawed piece of legislation."

Talking to reporters after the vote, Murphy told reporters, "I firmly believe the issue was put aside" by Republicans and dissident Democrats in an attempt to sustain the governor's veto and embarrass the House leadership. He said that effort was scuttled by many of the opponents once they realized they did not have sufficient votes to override the veto.

"Today's vote proves yet again that the movement to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest is unstoppable," Rob Kampia, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which joined the effort to pass the bill said in a press release.

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