Medical marijuana: His name’s on the law

June 07, 2007

M. Charles Bakst, Providence Journal (RI)

Decades from now, folks may notice Tom Slater’s name on a Rhode Island law allowing use of marijuana to ease the pain of cancer and other serious diseases. And they’ll wonder, admiringly I think, “Who was this guy? What was he about?”

And perhaps the single thing they’ll most need to know is that in the 1940s and ’50s, Slater, now a Providence state representative, grew up in a cold-water flat in South Providence, which you think of as largely black and Latino but was then mostly Irish and Jewish.

Of course, fewer and fewer people will ever have heard the term cold-water flat. Slater, who is 66, recalls, “Every Saturday night was bath night, and we would boil the water on the stove — my mother and father would — and then they’d empty it into a tub.”

He and his brother would take a bath. The water would be changed and his two sisters would bathe. In 1955 the family moved into a Cape next door that had hot water. “We thought we were in paradise,” Slater says.

Democrat Slater was the marijuana bill’s House sponsor. But more than that, his name is actually part of the title, The Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act.

Hawkins, who had AIDS and cancer, was the nephew of Sen. Rhoda Perry, the Senate sponsor.

Slater, who has breast cancer that has moved into his lungs, says House colleagues thought that if the Senate was memorializing someone in the title, the House should also honor someone. Not seeking glory, he voted against the amendment.

And you may be surprised to know that it’s not the kind of bill he’d have rushed to embrace when first elected in 1994. Slater says he came from a conservative background. And, as an officer in the Marine Reserves, he used to test reserve members for marijuana and present the evidence against violators in disciplinary proceedings.

But he has moved further and further left and become a leading State House spokesman for people in need. He declares, “I’m here to represent those who can’t represent themselves.”

He now lives in South Elmwood, not far from where he grew up, and his heavily minority district also takes in the Reservoir Triangle and the West End.

The medical marijuana proposal made sense to Slater as he stopped to consider the ravages of cancer on his own family. His brother, Joseph, died from it at 45 in 1985. “They used to put them on a morphine drip to keep away the pain…. He was just withering away and so he laid there in a comatose state.”

Slater’s father died of cancer; his sisters have had cancer.

Slater says he might take advantage of the law down the line if he finds himself wracked by pain. Right now, “My main problem is I get very tired.”

Perry says she doesn’t resent inclusion of Slater’s name in the legislation’s title. She asserts, “The fact that he has been very honest about his family’s trials and tribulations with cancer and his own experiences with cancer validated even more the need for a medical marijuana bill.”

Democrat Perry, a bleeding-heart liberal from the wealthy East Side, adds that Slater “very effectively” and “pugnaciously” represents the poor and disabled.

Before adjourning, the 2007 General Assembly is poised to override Governor Carcieri’s veto of the legislation to permanently extend the medical marijuana law that took effect last year and would otherwise expire on June 30.

Carcieri says legalization of medical marijuana violates federal law and could potentially subject Rhode Islanders to federal prosecution. Slater sees federal prosecution, especially of the sick and dying, as a remote prospect. He says Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly want this law. It allows patients with debilitating medical conditions to possess small amounts of pot without risk of state prosecution.

To Slater, it’s about compassion, and it’s just one issue you’ll hear him talk about. He also advocates for more spending on housing, education and school breakfasts, and he denounced as “obscene” the tax cuts for the rich passed by the 2006 Assembly. Slater, over the years, has used words like “cruel and heartless” to describe Republican Carcieri’s budget-cut proposals and, in general, depicts him as “uncompassionate.” (Carcieri declined an interview for this column.)

Slater says, “I’m here to help those that are homeless, those that are poor, those that are out there, the lost children of the world.”’

His district is economically disadvantaged. Latinos make up the largest bloc of voters, with sizeable numbers also of blacks and Asians. Slater’s background is mostly Irish but also with some English and Scottish.

A Democratic ally, Sen. Juan Pichardo, whose district includes the area Slater serves, says Slater’s outspoken commitment to the needs of minorities and low-income families is a secret to his ability to survive politically. Indeed, says Pichardo, “I take a lot of heat for him.” Pichardo, a Latino, says many constituents think the House seat should be filled by a minority. “I often say that Tom may be in the [Democratic] majority in the State House, but he’s certainly a strong voice for us in the minority community.”

Slater and several prominent Rhode Islanders go way back. He attended St. Michael’s School at the same time as Joe Walsh, who became Warwick mayor; Matt Smith, who became House speaker; Frank Darigan, who became a Superior Court judge, and Joe Rodgers, that court’s presiding justice.

Another fellow student was Jody McKiernan, who became Mrs. Slater and is a teacher’s aide in the Providence school system.

The Slaters’ daughter, Ellen Gopalakrishan, is an oncology nurse. Their sons are Gary, a Providence policeman, and Scott, a CPA.

Slater is a salesman for Genalco Inc., which makes hydraulic hoses used for snowplows and heavy construction equipment.

His father was a machinist in a rubber factory, his late mother an assembler in a tool plant. In this family of six, he recalls, “We couldn’t leave our dinner table unless we ate every speck of food on the plate because we didn’t know what we were going to eat for supper the next night. There were some times we went with cereal and bread for supper.… Sometimes we had empty stomachs.”

I don’t agree with Slater on everything. For example, he opposes abortion rights. And I wouldn’t comment on his proposal to extend the sales tax to daily newspapers. But, overall, it’s nice to see a legislator who gets angry, genuinely angry, over things like the housing crisis. He thunders, “Why should we have in this country, with the wealth and with the capital that we have, why should we have people homeless? Why should we have people sitting in the street?”

Senator Pichardo says of Slater, “He’s a real person.”

In the State House, that’s high praise indeed.

M. Charles Bakst is The Journal’s political columnist.

“I’m here to represent those who can’t represent themselves.”

Rep. Thomas Slater

mbakst@projo.com



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