Panel approves expansion of medical marijuana program

January 19, 2007

Nancy Remsen, Burlington Free Press (VT)

MONTPELIER -- More Vermonters would have the option of using marijuana to treat severe, persistent and debilitating symptoms that have failed to respond to other medical treatments under a bill approved Friday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill, recommended on a 4-1 vote, would expand eligibility beyond the limits set now in Vermont's two-year-old law, which restricts participation to people with cancer, multiple sclerosis or AIDS.

Under the Judiciary proposal, individuals with any chronic, progressive and debilitating condition that produces severe and persistent wasting syndrome, pain, nausea or seizures could seek protection from state prosecution for using marijuana to feel better. The proposal requires prospective participants to have tried traditional medical treatment first to relieve symptoms before turning to marijuana.

"We aren't legalizing marijuana," said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, one of the bill's sponsors. "You have to look at this from a compassionate perspective," he explained. "Someone suffering from such devastating illnesses as we address in this, they should be able to use a substance that will alleviate their symptoms."

The bill also would allow people registered with the Medical Marijuana Program in the Vermont Department of Public Safety to grow more marijuana plants than the current law allows. The bill would permit four mature plants and 10 immature plants, up from one mature and two immature plants.

Participants would pay less to register, too. The current fee is $100 a year, but would drop to $50 if the bill became law.

Finally, the committee agreed that doctors outside Vermont could certify that individuals applying to the medical marijuana registry have the specified illnesses or intractable symptoms. The existing restriction -- Vermont doctors only -- created problems for Vermonters who see physicians in other states, which is common in some border communities.

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, was the lone opponent of the changes. "It's the expansion of the diseases," she explained. "It seems too unstructured to me."

Nitka also worried about allowing participants to grow more plants, noting the committee heard conflicting testimony. "There seemed to be discrepancies in the amount of marijuana produced from a plant grown indoors."

The bill moves next to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee where advocates will push to further expand eligibility to include individuals with glaucoma.

Contact Nancy Remsen at bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com



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