Marijuana law gets Senate nod

May 03, 2007

Jim Baron, Pawtucket Times (RI)

Following in the footsteps of Wednesday's House vote, the Senate approved legislation Thursday to make the state's medical marijuana law permanent. The vote was 28-5, far exceeding the three-fifths vote required to survive the veto Gov. Donald Carcieri says is likely to come.

The law that protects from arrest or prosecution patients who suffer from a debilitating medical condition as certified by a physician and one or two "caregivers" who help them procure, grow or use the drug, was passed over the governor's veto in January, 2006, it is set to expire on June 30 unless a so-called "sunset clause" is eliminated.

The now-identical measures that passed the House and Senate this week do just that.
Under General Assembly procedure, the House bill will now go to the Senate for passage and the Senate bill will go to the House. Then both bills will go to Carcieri, who said if the measures are similar to what was passed last year, which they are, he would probably veto them. He must do that within six days (excluding Sundays) from the date he receives the bills from the respective chambers.

Sen. Rhoda Perry, who has sponsored medical marijuana legislation in one form or another for nearly a decade, thanked fellow senators for supporting the law and lifting the sunset clause.

"It really has taken almost eight years for it to be at the point we are at right now," Perry told her colleagues. "I believe my actions and your actions have allowed seriously ill people to alleviate their pain and suffering and pain without fear of arrest or prosecution on a state level.

"Over 250 of our constituents," Perry said, "people who are suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, other debilitating, chronic pain conditions are now a part of this groundbreaking program. These people who are using medical marijuana are not using it to get high. They are using it to alleviate pain and other serious symptoms."

The bill is titled The Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act. Hawkins, who died three years ago of AIDS, was Perry's nephew and she said it was his struggle with the disease that inspired her to push for the legislation. Rep. Thomas Slater, himself a cancer patient, is the prime sponsor of the House bill.

The law makes no provision for patients to obtain the drug, so they must buy it illegally on the black market. The law does not shield individuals from arrest or prosecution under federal law.

Sen. Charles Levesque told colleagues, "The numerous people who came in and individually told us their experience was they had no desire to go down this road, they had no desire to put their friends down the road of obtaining an illegal substance, putting themselves at risk in doing so. But they said ultimately it was their only form of relief, the only thing that allowed them to eat, to sleep, to find any comfort when they had been suffering from a debilitating disease.

"It was beyond my ability to look at these folks and say, I will not be prepared to give you that relief that you are begging us for," Levesque continued. "Boy, if that didn't make me feel humble, that someone had to come and ask me or any of us for that relief."
Patients are allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of "useable marijuana" or 12 plants and they may designate one or two caregivers. A caregiver can serve up to five patients, but under amendments approved in both the House and Senate this week, may possess no more than 5 ounces of the drug or 24 plants. The law as it stands allows care givers to possess 2.5 ounces and 12 plants for each patient, but some lawmakers felt that could amount to too much marijuana and urged the amendment to cap the amount caregivers can hold at any one time.

Sen. Leo Blais of Coventry, a pharmacist, tried to amend the legislation to prevent anyone from being a caregiver if a court found them to be in violation of the Rhode Island Uniform Controlled Substances Act.

"My concern with this bill is there is no prohibition currently for folks who have been given the extreme privilege of doing a patently illegal act under federal law" if they violate other drug laws. "There is no provision that says you lose your privilege. On the one hand we say we give you this big privilege to violate federal law and do this process of growing marijuana plants, but go ahead if you want to sell Oxycontin (a prescription narcotic) out the back door, that's fine because no matter what happens to you on that side, when you get out of prison, you still have your card to grow."

Actually, the bill passed in the House and Senate prohibits anyone who has a drug felony on his or her record from being a caregiver.

"The science supporting medical marijuana is now beyond doubt, and Rhode Island's experience with this law has been completely positive," said Ray Warren, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "The only controversy seems to be in the governor's mind, but strong support from the public and the medical community overcame his veto once, and if necessary, will do so again."

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