Connecticut House OKs medical marijuana use

May 23, 2007

Ken Dixon, Connecticut Post

After a wide-ranging, six-hour debate and several failed efforts to kill or weaken the controversial legislation, the House voted Wednesday to approve the use of marijuana by the seriously ill.

Nine out of 10 amendments from minority Republicans critical of the legislation failed in sharply partisan roll call and voice votes.

Lawmakers dug deeply into a very public debate on the current underground availability of marijuana in Connecticut and its relative analgesic qualities.

When the final vote arrived and the legislation passed 89-58, support came from a variety of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who agreed the General Assembly should do whatever it can to lessen suffering.

Proponents said the bill would only affect a couple of hundred people statewide who suffer from a variety of chronic ailments, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. Opponents charged that it could encourage public perception that the illegal substance is somehow acceptable. The bill would allow the seriously ill to obtain a doctor's authorization, pay a fee and possess up to four 4-foot-tall marijuana plants and an ounce of dried marijuana. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, speaking to Capitol reporters toward the end of the afternoon-long debate, said she would have to review the bill before making a final decision on the legislation.

 "I really have not taken a position on this bill, and I have to say I have the same mixed feelings I had before," Rell said.

The bill still has to go to the Senate, but third-term Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, who was scared of arrest 24 years ago while trying to buy marijuana for her dying husband, is optimistic that after eight years of trying the bill will pass.

"If it gets called in the Senate, I believe it will pass in the Senate," Bacchiochi said in an interview outside the House chamber after the vote. In past years, the bill has passed in the House or Senate, only to fail in the waning days of the Legislature.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee who introduced the bill for debate, said that there are currently no records of police arresting the many state residents who already smoke marijuana to relieve symptoms from ailments including MS, Parkinson's, neuro-muscular deficiencies and glaucoma, or to stimulate appetites dulled by cancer treatments.

"It is in effect already being decriminalized by discretionary decisions made by law enforcement in this state," Lawlor said. "Maybe it's incumbent on us to say the common sense of law enforcement should be the policy in this state." Rep. Thomas J. Drew, D-Fairfield, said the bill would balance the requirements of federal laws against marijuana that date back 70 years, with the need for relief by a tiny portion of the Connecticut population.

"What it's about is the medicinal value of the marijuana for those with extremely serious illnesses," Drew said. "I'm not persuaded that this law is going to be abused and I am persuaded that it may result in less criminal involvement."

Eligible medical conditions would include HIV-positivity, AIDS, epilepsy and cachexia, or wasting disease. Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said two weeks ago she visited a high school in her district where many kids told her matter-of-factly that marijuana is readily available and that existing drug laws aren't preventing many people from purchasing marijuana.

"I really believe that this bill is not going to make it worse," Klarides said. "The message is simple: We have compassion for people suffering in this state." If the bill is signed into law, beginning in July, a qualifying patient, or a designated caregiver, would be allowed to possess marijuana. If they were to be arrested while procuring the substance, they could mount a so-called affirmative defense in court in attempt to get the charges dropped.

Police would be allowed to obtain the list of patients from the state Department of Consumer Protection.

The lone Republican amendment that succeeded, in a 133-14 vote, would prohibit anyone who had been convicted of possession or dealing drugs from serving as a primary caregiver for a patient. It was offered by Rep. Kevin Witcos, R-Canton, who is a police officer. But most of the afternoon was taken up by seven amendments from Rep. Antonietta Boucher, R-Wilton, who was vehemently opposed to the legislation. Boucher took the floor at 2:08 p.m. and offered amendments until 4:48. They included review of the law by federal authorities; a state study of the number of potential qualifying patients; a study on the potential psychotic effects of the drug, and restricting the use of marijuana to only terminal patients, which was rejected in a 111-36 vote. Rep. Lawrence G. Miller, R-Stratford, who voted against the legislation, charged that there's little medical evidence linking marijuana as a reliable pain reliever for many of the medical conditions listed in the legislation.

Bacchiochi said after the final vote that she was prepared to dispute all the opposition claims, but chose mostly to stay seated and let the debate take its course.

"I felt it was in my best interest to be quiet," she said. "A lot of lawmakers had their minds made up already."

Southwestern Connecticut lawmakers who voted for the bill included Rep. Andres Ayala Jr.; Rep. Christopher L. Caruso; Rep. Charles D. Clemons; Rep. Robert T. Keeley Jr., and Rep. John Hennessy Jr., all D-Bridgeport; Rep. Linda Gentile, D-Ansonia; Rep. Leonard C. Greene, R-Beacon Falls; Rep. Richard O. Belden, R-Shelton; Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe; Rep. Tom Christiano, D-Fairfield, and Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull.

Lawmakers who voted against the measure included Speaker of the House James A. Amann and Rep. Richard Roy, both D-Milford; Rep. Paul Davis, D-Orange; Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford; Rep. John Harkins, R-Stratford; Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-Fairfield, and Rep. Felipe Reinoso, D-Bridgeport.

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