Cannabis Measure Passes Senate

June 03, 2007

Colin Poitras, Hartford Courant (CT)

After five years of on-again, off-again debate, Connecticut lawmakers Friday passed landmark legislation allowing seriously ill people to grow marijuana at home to ease their pain or reduce unpleasant side effects of treatment.

The bill passed by a 23-13 bipartisan vote in the state Senate, where it appeared people's personal experience with pain and loss trumped politics on this occasion. The House of Representatives passed the bill last week, 89-58.

The bill now goes to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has already expressed concerns about its broad reach but is waiting to review the bill's final language before deciding whether to sign it into law. Rell has said she would feel better if the bill were limited to people diagnosed as terminally ill.

State Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, introduced the bill on the Senate floor Friday.

"This legislation is tightly constrained to help a clearly defined group of people who are suffering," McDonald said. "These people who are suffering shouldn't have to suffer the threat of criminal prosecution in seeking treatment."

McDonald pointed out that a 2004 survey by the University of Connecticut Center for Survey Research and Analysis showed 83 percent of Connecticut residents support allowing adults to use marijuana for medical purposes if a doctor prescribes it.

Although he wasn't sure how Rell would act, McDonald said he didn't believe she was "in the 17 percent minority."

Republican opponents of the bill worried about the message the legislature was sending to children and whether a political body was the best place to decide appropriate medical remedies.

State Sen. Sam F.S. Caligiuri, D-Waterbury, said the bill may ultimately "do more harm than good."

"We'll be sending a mixed message to young people about whether marijuana is good or bad," Caligiuri said. "We're going to undercut our ability to keep children away from this gateway drug."

"This is definitely an emotional tug," said Sen. John McKinney, R-Southport, whose father, U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, died of AIDS. "To those who support this bill, I say your cause is noble, I just don't think this is the right way to get there."

Under the bill, patients with certain serious or chronic medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis could grow as many as four 4-foot-tall marijuana plants in their homes, provided they obtain a doctor's prescription to do so. Those patients would have to register with the state Department of Consumer Protection, which would enforce the policy should it become law.

The bill does not limit legal use of marijuana to the terminally ill, nor does it address how sick individuals or their caregivers would obtain the marijuana seeds to grow the plants. Local pharmacies do not stock marijuana or its seeds because of current restrictions under federal law.

Connecticut already has a law legalizing marijuana, but it is virtually useless. Current law allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to ease the pain and discomfort of chemotherapy or for those suffering glaucoma. But no prescriptions have been written because doctors don't want to risk prosecution under federal law.

Twelve states currently allow the palliative use of marijuana. Rhode Island has one of the most liberal laws, allowing as many as 12 plants.

Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, said she has seen research that shows marijuana use among young people declined in states that allowed medical marijuana.

"When you start using it as medicine, it starts losing its tempting attraction," Handley said.

The Connecticut Nurses Association, the National Academy of Science, the Lymphoma Foundation, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Yale School of Public Health have all come out in favor of medical marijuana, according to Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford.

"People are suffering and medical professionals in the field tell us this drug, under controlled circumstances, can provide some relief," McDonald said.

But the American Cancer Society, the Connecticut State Medical Society and the national Multiple Sclerosis Society are silent on the issue, McKinneysaid.

"The very doctors charged with taking care of all of us have said `we can't support it,'" McKinney said. "That in itself is extremely persuasive."

Sen. Judith G. Freedman, R-Westport, led the Republican Party's opposition. Freedman said commercial drugs on the market can provide equal relief for pain.

"It hasn't been proven to me that this is the only route available to people who are suffering," Freedman said.

Freedman also expressed concern about the message the bill was sending children who have been taught that illegal drugs are wrong and bad.

"What are we telling our children when we stand here in this circle saying let's legalize in Connecticut what the federal government says is illegal?" Freedman asked.

Contact Colin Poitras at

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