Senate votes to allow medical marijuana permanently

May 02, 2007

Ray Henry, Associated Press

State senators voted Thursday to make permanent a program allowing the chronically ill and their caregivers to possess and use marijuana for pain relief.

 

The bill passed 28-5, a margin wide enough to sustain a possible veto from Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, who vetoed the original bill in 2005. House lawmakers passed an identical measure on Wednesday by a similarly large margin.

Rhode Island became the eleventh state in the nation last year to begin a medical marijuana program. It expires on June 30 unless lawmakers renew it.

Under the program, patients suffering from HIV or AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, severe nausea, seizures or other debilitating illnesses can get state permission to possess up to 12 marijuana plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana in a usable form. That limit is doubled for caregivers.

Rhode Island lawmakers haven't established a legal route for buying marijuana. Its sale and use remains illegal under federal law.

Sen. Rhoda Perry, a Providence Democrat, named the bill after her nephew, Edward Hawkins, who died of complications from AIDS and lymphoma three years ago. His last days were spent coughing and in dementia, she said. Prescription narcotics didn't dull a pain so bad he often clenched his teeth.

She said marijuana might have made his last days more bearable. Health department officials say 577 patients and caregivers are now enrolled in the program.

"The people who are using marijuana are not using it to get high, but for alleviating serious pain," Perry told her colleagues.

Republicans including Gov. Carcieri have argued that the program encourages illegal drug abuse and makes patients susceptible to arrest and prosecution under federal law.

Special Agent Anthony Pettigrew of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New England office said federal officials will still enforce federal drug laws in Rhode Island. But he said the DEA isn't interested in targeting individual patients.

"I don't know what medical marijuana is but I know what marijuana is, an illegal drug with no medical use," he said in a written statement.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate must pass the same version of at least one of the medical marijuana bills before it can advance to the governor's desk. Carcieri hasn't decided whether he would veto the bill or let it become law without his signature, said his spokesman, Jeff Neal.

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