Medical marijuana law expanded
May 31, 2007
Nancy Remsen, Burlington Free Press (VT)
MONTPELIER -- Steve Perry of Randolph Center welcomed news Thursday that a bill expanding eligibility for the state's medical marijuana registry would become law -- even though the governor refused to sign it.Perry copes with a degenerative joint condition that causes severe pain and muscle spasms. Traditional painkillers fail to provide relief, he said, but marijuana has helped. Now he will be able to register with the Department of Public Safety and have protection from state prosecution while using the otherwise illegal drug.
The bill broadened the eligibility established in Vermont's 2004 law by allowing those with chronic debilitating conditions, not just life-threatening diseases, to participate in the program. It also increases the number of plants that participants may grow at home and reduces the annual registration fee from $100 to $50.
The marijuana bill is the fifth piece of legislation Gov. Jim Douglas has allowed to become law this year without his signature. Jason Gibbs, the governor's spokesman, said that generally Douglas exercises this option when he doesn't agree with the policy but recognizes a measure has strong support in the Legislature.
In the case of the marijuana bill, Gibbs said, "The governor has compassion for people who are suffering from debilitating diseases, but he can't in good conscience sanction a violation of federal law."
"Why wouldn't he veto it if that is the way he really feels?" asked Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham. "This is a wimp-out position." Shumlin criticized the governor for using the no-sign option so frequently.
Senate Majority Leader John Campbell, D-Windsor, agreed.
"I think what it says is that there was a lack of communication on many of the issues we were dealing with," Campbell said. "I would hope in the next session, if he or his staff have problems, we would have more in-depth conversations."
The four other bills Douglas let become law without his signature are:
H.274: This exempts providers of foster care to adults from counting their payment from this work as household income when calculating how much they owe in school property taxes -- if they pay based on their income. "While I gave serious consideration to vetoing this bill, I do want to support adult foster care providers and the important services they provide," Douglas wrote in a letter explaining his decision. "They should not be forced to bear the consequence of poor public policy developed by the Legislature.
H.78: This allows local voters to increase the number of signatures required on petitions requesting reconsideration or rescission of local votes. Douglas said the law could make it more difficult for towns to revisit decisions, but he let it become law because "it at least leaves to the voters the ultimate decision whether to change this time-honored tradition of local governance."
S.124: This allows the Legislature to hire consultants to review the planning the Douglas administration has undertaken to replace the state psychiatric hospital and to offer lawmakers options for new facilities. Douglas called this bill an infringement on the powers and duties of the executive branch of government and "a counterproductive exercise in micromanagement," but let it become law rather than further politicize the process.
S.39: This requires health insurance plans to cover prostate cancer screenings and services provided by naturopathic physicians. Douglas complained that the new mandates would increase health care costs.
Vermont is one of 12 states that protect very sick people from prosecution for using marijuana.
Even with the new changes, "it is still going to be very conservative compared to some of the other states," said Dan Bernath, assistant communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Campbell championed the expansion of eligibility and relaxation of the limits on the number of plants. A former police officer, he said he understood the governor's concern about passing legislation contrary to federal law. "We chose to look at the human side, to take a compassionate view."
Mark Tucci of Manchester is one of 35 Vermonters on the state's medical marijuana registry. Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, he said smoking marijuana provides relief from the pain and muscle spasms that awaken him many mornings. He uses about 2 ounces a month.
He had lobbied lawmakers to allow him to grow more marijuana at home. They agreed to a modest increase, but Tucci said Thursday that he still wouldn't be able to grow what he needs.
"It still forces me out on the black market," he said, "but it certainly helps."
Contact Nancy Remsen at 229-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org