Pot law in peril
December 26, 2006
Jim Baron, The Pawtucket Times
PROVIDENCE - Rhode Island's medical marijuana law, which allows people with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis to possess small amounts of the otherwise illegal substance without fear of arrest or prosecution will expire this year unless the General Assembly votes to reauthorize it.Providence Rep. Thomas Slater, who, with Providence Sen. Rhoda Perry, championed the bill through its first passage, is working on making the law permanent.
The current law contains a "sunset provision" that will in effect erase it from the books on June 30 unless the legislature takes further action. That was done as a safeguard in case the law was abused or turned out to have unanticipated consequences. Slater said there has been only one incident linked to the measure since it became law and he intends to introduce an amendment that would eliminate the sunset clause as soon as the General Assembly returns to session next week. He said he would like to see the amendment pass early in the session, rather than waiting for the last-minute crush of legislation that comes at the end of every session, usually in mid-to-late June.
Slater's effort has the backing of House Majority Leader Gordon Fox.
"The sunset clause was placed into the medical marijuana legislation to be certain that no major problems occurred upon implementation, Fox said. "My understanding from the Department of Health is that all the related issues have been handled very smoothly. Given that fact, I will support Representative Slater's effort to repeal the sunset clause during the upcoming session."
"I want to get it on a fast track," Slater said Tuesday. "If we don't get it done by June and it gets vetoed, we could have a problem."
Gov. Donald Carcieri vetoed the measure when it passed during the 2005 session, but the House voted to override that veto when it returned from recess last January as its last order of business before adjourning and immediately starting the 2006 session. The senate had voted its override months earlier.
Carcieri spokesman Michael Maynard said Tuesday that the governor has not changed his negative view of medical marijuana, but added the administration wants to see the specific legislation before commenting on what the governor would do about a veto.
"The health department is receiving data and will make a recommendation to the governor," Maynard said.
The law allows an individual certified by a physician as having a debilitating illness to register with the health department so that person and two caregivers can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana or 12 marijuana plants without facing arrest or prosecution by the state. The drug is still illegal to possess under federal law, but those on all sides of the debate agree it is unlikely the federal government would come after an individual patient under most circumstances.
Also, patients are on their own to obtain the marijuana, which is not available anywhere legally and must be bought though street dealers or other means.
Health Department spokeswoman Maria Wah-Fitta said that as of last week, 193 patients have registered for a medical marijuana card and 19 applications are pending. Also, 173 caregivers have been registered, with two more pending.
At this point, Wah-Fitta said, "we don't have a specific recommendation" about whether the sunset provision should be repealed.
Only one medical marijuana card has been revoked because of abuse since the law took effect a year ago, she noted.
A 48-year-old man from Exeter, Steven Trimarco, was arrested earlier this year for allegedly meeting with teenage girls online and offering to smoke marijuana with them.
The Trimarco arrest is just one incident among the nearly 200 patients who have registered, Slater noted, adding, "we're not even sure he had a medical marijuana card. That is confidential information. If Trimarco was a registered patient, the police gave out that information improperly, Slater said.
Slater told The Times there may be a couple of other "tweaks" to the law recommended by the health department.
He said the department suggested that criminal background checks be conducted on caregivers, to make sure none of them have a felony record. Slater says he does not think that would be a problem and is willing to work with the health department, which although it opposed passage of the law "has been pretty good about" executing it.
Slater said he is also looking at some of the things being done in California as far as establishing dispensaries where the drug can be obtained legally, but he is afraid "the federal government will jump right on that" to shut it down and arrest people. "That would get their attention quickly."
Bruce Mirkin with the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project said his group will work in Rhode Island to support the renewal of the legislation, as it pushed to get the original law passed.
Mirkin said he believes "there is a pretty broad understanding within the legislature that this law has worked pretty well and helped a lot of people." He added "we have no reason to believe the governor's attitude has changed, but we hope that it will."
Rhode Island is one of 11 states with a law permitting the medical use of marijuana, and he expects more bills will be introduced in state legislatures this year, including efforts in Illinois and Minnesota. He said no state that has passed a medical marijuana law has subsequently repealed or weakened it. "What tweaking has been done has sometimes expanded it," Mirkin said, explaining that Maine subsequently increased the amount of the drug a patient could possess after the law was first passed.
The law has been effective, Slater said, to the extent that it has "given peace of mind" to patients who use the drug to relieve pain, nausea and other symptoms. "I don't think anyone argues that it is a cure-all."
The medical marijuana law lost one of its most zealous advocates with the death this month of 35-year-old Warren Dolbashian, a Tourette's syndrome patient who testified before legislative committees and played a prominent role in rallies and press conferences in support of the bill.