Connecticut committee approves medical marijuana bill

March 14, 2004

Donna Tommelleo, Associated Press/Newsday

HARTFORD, Conn. -- A bill that will allow sick people to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday, despite opposition from lawmakers who described the measure as a backdoor attempt to legalize the drug. The Legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 24-15 to approve the bill, which is nearly identical to a measure that made it out of committee last year before failing on the House floor. This year's bill decreases the number of plants that can be grown from six plants to five and would require the plants be grown in a secure, indoor area, said bill sponsor state Rep. Jim Abrams.

The bill is not an attempt to legalize or decriminalize marijuana for recreational use, Abrams said.

"It's used to treat sick people to keep them out of jail," said Abrams, D-Meriden.

The bill would allow doctors to provide a written certification that qualifies their patient to use marijuana only for medical purposes. The patient or a caregiver would then be allowed to grow up to five plants for personal use and present the doctor's certificate as a legal defense for having the illegal substance.

Connecticut's public policy enacted in the early 1980s permits physicians to prescribe marijuana for people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and other chronically painful illnesses. Patients say it relieves pain and nausea when no other drugs can. But doctors in Connecticut have not prescribed marijuana because its use is illegal under federal law.

Under the bill, the certificate also would provide the doctor with a defense from federal prosecution.

"It takes the doctor out of the chain of procurement," Abrams said.

Opponents contend the bill would make the drug more available to society as a whole.

"You have proponents out there whose underlying goal is to legalize the drug," said state Rep. Robert Farr, who voted against the measure.

He said there are other legal drugs available that can be used to treat the maladies.

Farr questioned the validity of studies that tout the medicinal benefits of pot for people with glaucoma, an incurable and painful eye condition and the second leading cause of the blindness. He pointed to other studies that showed the opposite.

"It's not effective, but actually causes further eye damage," Farr said. "The message that we send out to our society is that somehow marijuana is not a dangerous drug."

Other critics suggested that the drug should be controlled by pharmacies and not grown by the user. Still others questioned the unintended legal consequences that may arise from the law.

"The scenario that we are creating all to get around a federal law that is the problem, creates a bigger set of circumstances," said state Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk.

But Abrams countered that the judicial system is equipped to deal with the gray areas of the law.

"That's what the courts are for," Abrams said. "There are always questions around the edges and that's why we have trials. If someone's busted under those circumstances, that's what the courts will have to determine."

Eight states _ Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington _ have laws protecting seriously ill patients who use medical marijuana with their doctor's recommendations.

The Connecticut bill heads to the full House where it will likely be forwarded to the Public Health Committee for further review.

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