Rhode Island looking the other way?

February 04, 2006

Russ Olivio, The Woonsocket Call (RI)

Medical marijuana has often been portrayed as the palliative of last resort for the sickest of the sick. But when the drug becomes legal with a doctor's prescription on April 1, the afflicted who want to procure a dose of the controversial cure will find Rhode Island's new medical marijuana law comes with an unspoken caveat: you're on your own.
Contrary to the hopes of many ailing individuals who appeared before the General Assembly to advocate for legalizing medical marijuana earlier this year, the law is deliberately silent on the question of how people are supposed to get the drug if they need it.

Advocates behind the national movement to legalize marijuana think too much attention has been paid to the supply issue - especially in Rhode Island - but some local caregivers believe the law is deeply flawed.

"I think it's ridiculous, especially for the elderly," says Charlene McGuire, the director of the AGAPE Center for people suffering from AIDS.

In all likelihood, McGuire says many of the clients with whom she has the most direct contact will have the street savvy to seek out marijuana. But she still has a hard time imagining the typical senior citizen setting out to cop marijuana through their old-time connections.

If they're anything like her, she says, they don't know drug dealers and have no idea how to seek one out.
Bruce Mirken of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, scoffs at such ruminations.

"Rhode Island is the only place that seems to be obsessing about it," he says. "In the real world, it has not been a huge issue."

The 11th state in the nation to pass a medical marijuana law has spawned more expression of overblown concern about getting marijuana into the hands of the suffering than any of the others, according to Mirken. But supply has never been the issue because marijuana is "as common as dirt," he says.

What is the issue is the federal government. In all the states that have passed medical marijuana laws, people who possess the drug, even for sanctioned pharmacological use, still face prosecution by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

With state and local authorities responsible for making over 90 percent of all marijuana arrests, however, most people who possess small amounts of the drug are seldom targets of federal prosecution, MPP argues. But when states become part of the supply chain, they are sitting ducks, says Mirken.

In California, which has more medical marijuana users than any other state in the nation, the city of San Francisco attempted to establish a number of storefront dispensaries, several of which were raided by the federal government, said Mirken. Colorado has also had a number of high-profile arrests since the state legalized medical marijuana in 2000.

Rhode Island's medical marijuana law attempts to tread a fine line between sanctioning the use of marijuana for people who need it, while making marijuana users no more of a target for the federal government than they already are, said Mirken.

State Rep. Tom Slater (D-Providence), the chief sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, agrees.

"Nobody wants to deal with the issue of supply because of the federal government," he says.

But Slater, who suffers from breast cancer and may one day want to try medical marijuana, has some advice for those who have no idea how to get it: Find someone who does.

Under the law, qualifying users may appoint as many as two "primary caregivers" to assist them in their treatment.
If the patient himself is unschooled in the ways of obtaining marijuana, "Hopefully they have someone close to them with a little street smarts," he says.

OVERRIDING Gov. Donald Carcieri's 2005 veto, the General Assembly in January overwhelming passed a measure allowing individuals suffering from a "debilitating medical condition" to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana without fear of arrest, prosecution or property forfeiture. A physician must recommend marijuana for qualifying individuals, and both the doctor and patient must register with the state Department of Health (DOH).

Though the law is sufficiently broad to include other
conditions, qualifying patients are deemed to be those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV and Hepatitis-C.

Under the measure, the law also allows patients to designate up to two non-physician caregivers to assist them in their treatment and who also may possess marijuana legally. Such caregivers may assist up to five qualifying patients each.

Though the law makes no provision for the state Department of Health to regulate the supply of the drug, Maria Wah-Fitta, a spokeswoman for the agency, said there has been "substantial confusion out there" about the issue since the law was passed.

"We have nothing to do with the supply," says Wah-Fitta, adding that DOH plans to issue a statement this week clarifying its legislative mandate.

If all goes according to plan, DOH will establish a confidential registry and issue photo IDs for both patients and caregivers, with a $75 registration fee. The agency will also make forms available for doctors to certify qualified patients.

The agency has already issued a draft proposal of the regulations, with a public hearing scheduled to take place in Providence on Feb. 28 before they are formally adopted.

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