Vt. Senate may soon see medical marijuana bill

February 22, 2007

Daniel Barlow, Rutland Herald (VT)

MONTPELIER — A bill expanding Vermont's medical marijuana law to patients suffering from chronic pain passed a key committee this week and may come to the Senate floor for a vote next week.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee unanimously passed the bill Tuesday and supporters said the measure, which broadens access to medical marijuana beyond patients suffering from life-threatening illness, has a strong chance of passing.

"If I had to guess, I would say this will pass," said Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, who heads the health committee. "The two committees that have looked at the issue so far have a 9-1 vote total in favor of it."

If it becomes law, the bill would expand the state's 2004 medical marijuana law by allowing patients with illnesses that cause severe and progressive pain to possess, use and grow marijuana.

That's good news for Steve Perry, a 37-year-old Randolph Center man who had to leave his job as a heating and plumbing contractor several years ago when he was diagnosed with a degenerative joint disease. He now lives on disability.

"As the law stands now, I'm not a candidate," said Perry, who takes prescription painkillers, but is interested in using marijuana for pain relief. "Although I have real bad pain, my illness is not life threatening."

Many patients suffering from chronic pain have a difficult time with traditional medications because they often kick in after the pain recedes, according to Joe McSherry, a neurologist with Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

McSherry said the new bill would bring Vermont's law closer in line with 10 other states that have similar statutes. The proposal is not completely what supporters were hoping for — glaucoma was stripped from the bill's text as an illness that could be treated with marijuana — but it is another step forward, he said.

"Cannabis has the ability to get into the system very quickly and supply the pain relief that the patients are looking for," McSherry said.

The bill also increases the amount of the drug a patient on the state marijuana registry can possess, according to lawmakers.

Patients could have up to four mature plants and 10 immature plants, as long as they had the OK from a doctor and were registered with the Vermont State Police.

Patients would still be restricted to having two ounces of marijuana at any time, but the law would benefit people who have been relying on the black market for marijuana, McSherry said.

He said patients using medical marijuana have no interest in searching out dealers to get their pain relief.

"Most of the people taking medical cannabis are older," he said. "Their intent is to feel good, but not that kind of good."

The bill briefly landed in the Senate Finance Committee for review this week because it would lower the sign-up fee to join the registry from $100 to $50. Chairwoman Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said the committee was briefed on the issue, but did not have a vote.

"It was such a small amount that was changed," she said. "We didn't feel a vote was necessary."

The 2004 bill became law without the signature of Gov. James Douglas, who said at the time that he could not support a law that runs afoul of federal law, which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug.

Spokesman Jason Gibbs said Thursday that Douglas has the same concerns with the expanded bill. He would not say if the governor was considering a veto when it came to his desk.

"The governor will take a look at the bill and what it proposes very carefully as it proceeds through the legislative process," Gibbs said.

Contact Daniel Barlow at daniel.barlow@rutlandherald.com.

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