Marijuana Law in Connecticut Gains Ground

June 10, 2007

Stacey Stowe, New York Times

Seventeen years ago, Mark Braunstein dived 60 feet off a footbridge into a river, landed wrong and became a paraplegic. A librarian at Connecticut College, Mr. Braunstein, 55, walks with the aid of crutches and leg braces. He smokes marijuana every three days or so to control the pain and spasms in his feet that would otherwise immobilize him.

“I grew it in my woods, but the penalties for cultivation are higher than for possession, so people are forced to patronize the black market,” said Mr. Braunstein, who lives in Waterford. “I have a friend who grows it organically, and I buy it from him.”

In addition to potential legal jeopardy, people who use marijuana for medical reasons endure a financial pinch, he said, as an ounce can cost $300 to $400, depending on its quality. For five years, Mr. Braunstein and others have pressed the Connecticut General Assembly for an alternative. A few weeks ago, they came closer to getting one.

On June 1, the State Senate, following the House, passed a bill that allows people with certain “debilitating” medical conditions to grow as many as four marijuana plants for “palliative use” with the recommendation of a doctor and registration with the State Department of Consumer Protection.

If passed, the bill would make Connecticut the 13th state in the nation to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

But it is unclear whether Gov. M. Jodi Rell will sign the bill. Last week, Rich Harris, her spokesman, said she had not decided. Even if the bill were to become law, it would not legalize the drug, as growers could still theoretically be charged under federal law, which bars its medical use.

The governor’s stance reflects that conflict.

“In the past, she has been sympathetic to helping the terminally ill and those with debilitating symptoms find relief,” Mr. Harris said, “but she would frankly prefer to see the policy change at the federal level since it is a chronic problem for any state that takes up the issue.”

Given the avalanche of bills at the close of the legislature’s regular session last Wednesday, it is unclear when Mrs. Rell will consider this one. All bills must go through procedural matters before being sent to the governor; as of Friday she had not received the marijuana bill. Mrs. Rell has 15 days to sign or veto the bill once it lands on her desk. If she does neither, it will become law automatically.

The Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill in 1981 that authorized doctors to write prescriptions for marijuana if their patients had glaucoma or were undergoing chemotherapy, but it was largely toothless because no pharmacies carry the drug.

For the past five years, the legislature has considered various bills that support the use of marijuana for palliative care, but until now not one has passed.

On Friday, one supporter of the most recent bill addressed opponents’ concerns that allowing use of the drug for medical use could send mixed messages to children.

“There is a psychic barrier that many people wrestle with,” said Andrew J. McDonald, Democrat of Stamford and deputy majority leader of the State Senate, where the bill passed 23 to 13. “But nobody is condoning its use for recreational purposes. We’re trying to create a regulated system where people in vastly compromised medical conditions can have benefits of it.”

The House voted in favor of the bill, 89 to 58, on May 23. State Representative Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, a Democrat from Hartford who is deputy speaker, said she had been “vehemently opposed” to the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes and voted against such bills in the past because she feared a negative impact on children.

But she changed her mind when two of her cousins died of cancer last year.

“When I saw the pain and suffering they endured while trying to maintain their dignity and composure, the bill came to my mind,” Ms. Kirkley-Bey said. “There was a feeling that before, I didn’t do the right thing.”

Under the bill, people with multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS, epilepsy or neuro-spinal damage, among other conditions, could grow marijuana indoors with a doctor’s recommendation and a state permit.

But the proposal differs in some ways from medical marijuana laws in other states. Unlike California’s law, the first in the nation, Connecticut’s would not permit buying marijuana from stores or using the drug merely to manage pain, said Gabriel Sayegh, a project director for Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group based in Manhattan.

State Senator John McKinney, a Republican from Southport whose father, a congressman, died of AIDS in 1987, expressed sympathy for people with debilitating illnesses. But he said that supporting the bill would be “sending the wrong message,” one that marijuana is not a bad drug.

“It is an illegal drug under our federal laws,” Mr. McKinney said. “So are we going to ask people to break the law to get seeds from the black market? Are they going on a street corner?”

Mr. McKinney also said that patients could ease their symptoms with prescription drugs.

But Representative Penny Bacchiochi, a Republican from Somers, said prescription drugs did not alleviate the pain of her husband, who died after having bone cancer in the late 1980s. On the recommendation of his doctor, she bought marijuana for him.

“I remembered how much fear I had,” she said, “but you do anything for someone you love.”



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