State Senate advances expanded Rx marijuana bill

January 18, 2007

Louis Porter, Rutland Herald (VT)

After 1996, when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after two years of symptoms, Mark Tucci of Manchester began taking a battery of heavy duty drugs. But those medications came with their own problems and side effects.

Then he began smoking marijuana. Tucci says his use of the drug has helped him to cut in half the number of prescription medicines he takes, and his illness is not progressing as rapidly as was expected. He has written a book for patients growing marijuana.

"Not only does smoking slow down the degenerative progress of my disease, you can see that, but I don't have to take the 17 narcotics I did have to take," Tucci, 50, said by telephone Friday.

He spoke the same day the state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-1 to advance a bill expanding the state's medical marijuana statute, which became law in 2004.

The concerns of law enforcement officials helped persuade members of the committee to stop short of giving advocates for medical marijuana everything they wanted, said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, he committee chairman. Police and prosecution officials testified earlier this month that there was a chance changing the law could contribute to an increase in drug crimes, or that patients might be targeted for theft.

"We listened to law enforcement and their concerns," Sears said.

The bill, which now moves to the Health and Welfare Committee in the Senate, would expand Vermont's marijuana program significantly.

If it becomes law, sufferers of chronic illnesses that are progressive and debilitating – but not life-threatening – will be able to legally possess and grow limited amounts of the drug. In the past, access was restricted to deadly diseases like cancer, AIDs and multiple sclerosis.

Patients would be able to have four mature marijuana plants and ten immature plants, as long as they registered the plants with State Police and had the approval of their doctors.

However, patients still would be restricted to possessing two ounces of marijuana. And strict rules about how the drugs are grown, and requirements about registration by patients, would remain in place, lawmakers said.

"The testimony we received was that it was working well for the people already on the registry," Sears said.

So far, Vermont's law has not run afoul of federal authorities. Vermont's law protects patients from prosecution by state and local authorities, but not under federal drug laws.

However, Vermont's medical marijuana law is significantly more restrictive than those in other states, like California, where federal authorities have stepped in to enforce U.S. laws, Sears said.

"We still believe that is unlikely to happen in Vermont," Sears said.

He said it's important for Vermont to expand the list of ill patients who are eligible for medical use of the drug, and to increase the number of plants patients can grow for their own use. Otherwise, patients — whose diseases may have weakened them financially as well as physically — may be purchasing them much more expensively on the black market.

"Some of these people are just struggling to get by," Sears said.

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, voted against the bill in the Judiciary Committee.

"I certainly have sympathy for the people who are not included in the current law," she said. But "it's not something I was comfortable with."

In part, there was too much conflicting testimony about how much of the drug could be collected from plants grown indoors, as Vermont's law requires, Nitka said.

"There was a very wide range, too wide for me," Nitka said.

Adam Necrason, a lobbyist and lawyer for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that while advocates did not get everything they wanted, the bill is a step in the right direction

"This bill marks a major step forward in Vermont's medical marijuana program," he said. "While not perfect, S.7 will extend protection to many patients who suffer terribly but have no protection under our current law. The legislature and governor should pass this measure without delay."

Sears said he expects the bill to receive broad support in the Senate. He is hopeful it can help people like the elderly man he spoke to recently who suffers terribly from shingles.

As for Tucci, he wishes the committee had gone further toward adopting his and other advocates' recommendations for allowing patients to grow more plants and possess more marijuana. He vividly remembers the difference using marijuana medicinally made in his life — especially when he was able to get rid of some of the side effects of his other prescriptions.

"My God, I didn't feel like I was going to throw up anymore," he said. "My disease is progressing, there is no doubt about it," Tucci said. But "I can get rid of most of my pain and most of my spasms … It's about quality of life."

Contact Louis Porter at louis.porter@rutlandherald.com.

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