Vermont Governor undecided on medical marijuana

May 16, 2007

Daniel Barlow, Rutland Herald (VT)

MONTPELIER – Medical marijuana advocates are waiting to see what Gov. James Douglas does with a proposed new law expanding the state's program, with many hopeful he will allow it to become law without his signature.

Douglas, a Republican, took a similar stance three years ago when the Vermont Legislature passed the medical marijuana law allowing some patients with extremely serious illnesses to legally use and obtain the drug as a medication.

The new proposal would expand the law to include illnesses that are chronic, progressive or debilitating, such as severe arthritis or shingles.

Max Schlueter, the director of the Vermont Crime Information Center, the Public Safety Department division that overseas the program, said there are 35 people and six caregivers registered with the state to use marijuana.

Jason Gibbs, Douglas' spokesman, said the governor has not yet seen the bill, but would review it closely before making a decision. If he decides it is only a modest expansion of the current law, he would probably let it go forward without a signature, Gibbs added.

"The governor is certainly sympathetic to those people suffering from debilitating and chronic illnesses who are seeking this as a way to alleviate pain," he said. "But he is also reluctant to endorse a bill that runs afoul of federal law."

State officials said the current medical marijuana program has operated smoothly and the new legislation address some concerns by administrators, including that the $100 registration fee – slashed in half in the new bill – was prohibitive.

Other proposed changes in the bill include increasing the number of mature and immature plants a patient can grow and allowing out-of-state doctors to prescribe marijuana to Vermonters.

Under the current law, Vermonters who are prescribed marijuana by a state doctor and have a life-threatening illness or one that is "severe, persistent and intractable" can fill out a six-page form and, if approved, receive a photo identification that states they can use the medication.

Advocates of the expanded medical marijuana bill are calling on Douglas to allow it to become law. Mark Tucci, a Manchester Center man who uses marijuana to ease his symptoms of multiple sclerosis, said this week that "these improvements will bring more relief to more suffering patients."

Steve Perry, a Randolph Center resident who wants to use marijuana for his degenerative joint disease, added that Vermont's current law is one of the more restrictive among the 12 states that allow the drug to be used as medication.

"Marijuana gives me relief from the extreme pain I suffer every day, relief that even powerful narcotics like OxyContin don't give, but today I risk arrest and jail every time I use it," Perry said.

Schlueter, the director of the Vermont Crime Information Center, is making no guesses on how the number of people using medical marijuana may change under the expansion since the state's previous estimates when the current law passed were far higher than the actual number.

Schlueter said some Vermonters may be hesitant to sign up because medical marijuana use is still a federal crime and the state does not now have a mechanism for people to buy or receive the medication from legitimate dealers or growers.

"They still have to buy it off the street, which I think gives them pause," he said. "And some people may be hesitant to tell law enforcement that they intend to use medical marijuana, as opposed to telling someone from the department of health."

If Douglas does allow the medical marijuana bill to expand the law, it will bring Vermont's position closer in line with other states, although still lower on the total scale according to Bruce Mirken, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

"What Vermont has now is hyper-restrictive," he said. "This bill would bring the law closer to the middle of what other states have."

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


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