Patients argue for expansion of medical marijuana law
January 11, 2007
Nancy Remsen, Burlington Free PressMONTPELIER -- Steve Perry of Randolph Center described the squeezing pain he feels in his legs, electric shock-like sensations when he turns his neck the wrong way, and crippling muscle spasms. He takes narcotic pain- killers, he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but explained he gets the best relief when he also smokes marijuana -- an illegal drug.
"If I had multiple sclerosis, I could qualify under the law and use marijuana to treat my severe muscle spasms and pain," Perry said. He was referring to a 2004 law that exempts Vermonters with certain debilitating conditions from state penalties if they register with the Department of Public Safety and follow rules for growing and using marijuana for medical treatment. Possession and use of marijuana remains a federal crime.
Perry's diagnosis is degenerative joint disease, which wasn't included as an eligible condition under Vermont's law. "Because the law doesn't allow me to legally use or obtain marijuana, I have to put myself at risk of being arrested and going to jail every time I need to ease the pain."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, has introduced a bill that would expand the list of diseases and conditions that would qualify someone for the state's legal protection for therapeutic use of marijuana, allow registered participants to grow more plants, and decrease by half the current $100 registration fee.
Perry urged lawmakers, as they consider these changes, to remember people like him who don't have life-threatening diseases, but still struggle with chronic, debilitating pain. "We don't deserve to be treated like criminals."
Vermont's 2-year-old Medical Marijuana Registry program has worked smoothly, reported Max Schlueter, director of the Vermont Crime Information Center. Twenty-nine people are registered, down from a high of 34. Sixteen have multiple sclerosis.
Despite smooth operations, Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper urged the committee to be cautious about expanding eligibility or allowing more plants. Noting a recent increase in substance abuse problems across the state, Sleeper said he didn't want lawmakers to do anything that would exacerbate this criminal activity.
Jane Woodruff, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, warned that increasing the number of plants could make participants' homes targets for criminals. "I would ask you to take that very seriously."
The most emotional opponent of the proposed expansion was not scheduled to address the committee until next week, but he sat anxiously through the first two days of testimony.
Steve Steiner of Tioga Center, N.Y., said he lost his son to a drug overdose six years ago. Although prescription drugs killed his boy, Steiner said, "marijuana played a role. It opened the door."
To channel his grief, Steiner founded Americans for Drug Free Youth and Dads and Mad Mothers Against Drugs. He travels the country trying to block enactment of laws that provide legal protections to any kind of marijuana use.
Steiner charges that the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that has promoted medical marijuana bills in states including Vermont, wants to legalize marijuana.
"I've seen how they parade sick and dying patients before legislatures," Steiner said. He said of his own group, "We aren't trying to hurt these sick and dying patients, but we want good medicine. What is being sold to Vermonters is snake oil."
Mark Tucci of Manchester has visited the Statehouse many times to lobby for protections for people like himself. He has multiple sclerosis and smokes several times a day to ease muscle spasms and pain. "I know it works," he told lawmakers Thursday.
Tucci, a registered medical marijuana user, argued that the current plant limits result in an inadequate supply of marijuana. "I smoke roughly 2 ounces a month. At present, I can grow two ounces in a three-to-four month period, which means two-thirds of my meds have to be bought on the black market."
"I'm getting sick of going out to try to find the stuff," added Tucci, who walks unsteadily with a crutch. Having friends buy his supply puts them at risk.
Regardless of who buys the marijuana, he noted, it costs $400 or more per ounce, which comes out of his monthly $850 disability check. "The way to end all this is to let me grow enough."
Contact Nancy Remsen at email@example.com