Legislators, students seek to make medical marijuana permanent

March 01, 2007

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The war is not over for supporters of the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act in Rhode Island, as legislators and the University of Rhode Island Students for Sensible Drug Policy now call for the bill to remain permanent.

In 2006, the Rhode Island General Assembly overrode Gov. Donald Carcieri's veto on the bill, and agreed to implement it on a trial basis. The law protects patients with debilitating medical conditions who opt marijuana as medical treatment.

R.I. Rep. Thomas Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence), who has spearheaded the campaign for the initial medical marijuana bill along with state Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Dist. 3, Providence), said the bill that passed last year was only meant as a trial run. Slater and Perry are now asking that the sunset clause, which states the medical marijuana program will expire on June 30 - one year from the date in which it began - be removed.

"This is my third year involved with this bill," Slater said. "The first year we didn't really get anywhere. The second year we were very successful. It was overridden by the governor's veto but we were able to get the final vote. Now what we're trying to do is keep the marijuana bill alive to relieve patients' vomit [and] nausea, and to help people with cancer and muscular dystrophy."

Slater said he is confident the bill will pass, though he expects Gov. Donald Carcieri will veto the legislation as he has did before.

"Right now we have 52 signatures, so I don't think we'll have any trouble passing it," he said. "If the governor vetoes, we're hoping to override that decision."

Slater said he also believes the Rhode Island Department of Health will not show support for the new legislation because of the governor's position on the bill.

"But there've been very few problems with [the program]," Slater said.

Despite "virtually no incidents" involving the medical marijuana bill, the program was not given federal authorization, though Slater said those receiving the alternative medical treatment are protected by state and local police.

"We will not be able to get federal approval because they are against it and the FDA is against it," he said. "They do not recognize that marijuana can relieve pain."

One incident in October involving an Exeter resident served as an example of how the medical marijuana law could be abused. Under the law, 48-year-old Steven Trimarco was allowed to grow marijuana plants. He was accused of growing 72 plants and soliciting teenage girls in North Kingstown over the Internet to smoke marijuana, according to a Providence Journal article.

"Relief wasn't one of his agendas," Slater said, insisting it was an isolated incident. "That's one thing that's happened."

In addition to the removal of the sunset provision, legislators are seeking to issue caregivers and patients registration cards that are valid for two years instead of one. Legislators are also pushing for more "restrictive language," which will reinforce their option to grow marijuana in limited qualities.

Currently, individual caretakers or patients are allowed 12 marijuana plants, or the equivalent to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana, Slater said. Caregivers may not possess more than 24 plants at a time under any circumstances. This includes caregivers who have more than two patients under their care.

About 300 to 400 people have received marijuana as a form of medical treatment after June 30, Slater said. He added, "any doctor can give a recommendation to someone with a debilitating disease."

After patients or caregivers receive approval from a doctor, Slater said each patient must go through an extensive screening process developed by the state health department.

"The Health Department screens [the patient] to make sure [his or her] condition exists," he said. "They make sure there's no problems with the individual patient."

He added that patients with a criminal record who are more likely to sell marijuana than use it for treatment will not be granted access to marijuana plants.


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