Rell vetoes bill to legalize medical marijuana

June 18, 2007

Susan Haigh, Associated Press

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have allowed people with certain serious illnesses to use marijuana to ease their symptoms, saying it was fraught with problems and sent a mixed message to children.

The veto is seen as a near-fatal blow for an issue debated at the Capitol for the past five years, pitting broader patients' rights against concerns of legalized access to an illicit drug. Twelve states allow patients to use marijuana despite federal laws against it.

I think this is a big step backward," said state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, a widow who risked arrest more than 20 years ago to obtain marijuana for her husband while he struggled with bone cancer.

Unless a compromise can be reached next year, such as limiting medical marijuana to only terminally ill patients, Bacchiochi said she doesn't see the legislation going forward "unless there is a new governor."

The bill would have allowed people older than 18 with specific medical conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS, to grow and use four marijuana plants after getting written permission from a doctor and registering with the state.

Rell, a cancer survivor, said she struggled over whether to sign the bill.

"I am not unfamiliar with the incredible pain and heartbreak associated with battling cancer," she said. "I have spoken and met with dozens of people on this issue, all of whom have presented their positions passionately and articulately."

But she said the legislation did not address numerous complications, such as where patients and their caregivers would obtain the marijuana plants.

"There are no pharmacies, storefronts or mail order catalogs where patients or caregivers can legally purchase marijuana plants and seeds," she said. "I am troubled by the fact that, in essence, this bill forces law-abiding citizens to seek out drug dealers to make their marijuana purchases."

Rell said there is also nothing in the bill about whether qualified patients and their caregivers would be monitored to make sure the drug is being used properly.

Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who waged an hours-long debate against the bill in the House of Representatives, thanked Rell for taking the health and welfare of Connecticut residents into consideration when she decided to veto the bill.

"She is a hero to me and to so many others today," Boucher said.

Bacchiochi said she understands Rell's concerns. But she hopes that if more states like Connecticut pass such laws _ despite lingering questions about how a medical marijuana program would work _ the federal government will ultimately be forced to address the issue.

"I'm willing to bite the bullet and let's do this and move forward and make the change on the federal level," she said.

This year's bill won final, bipartisan legislative approval earlier this month. TV talk show host Montel Williams, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, came to the state Capitol to urge support for the bill. He said he uses marijuana in various forms to help alleviate intense pain and debilitating symptoms.

Proponents from the Drug Policy Alliance and A Better Way Foundation said they were particularly disappointed with Rell's veto because the bill had passed the Senate by a vote of 23-13 after clearing the House of Representatives by an 89-58 vote weeks earlier. They also pointed to a 2004 University of Connecticut poll that found 83 percent of Connecticut residents support the medical use of marijuana.

Joshua Warren, 32, of Wilton, who suffers from chronic neurological Lyme disease, said he did not ask for his medical condition or the pain he endures.

"If Governor Rell had any compassion for people like me who are suffering with horrible pain and other debilitating illnesses, she would have signed this bill," he said.

Connecticut already has a medical marijuana law, one of the first in the nation. Under the 1981 law, a doctor can prescribe the illegal drug to relieve nausea associated with chemotherapy and eye pressure from glaucoma.

But the law is unworkable because, under federal law, physicians who prescribe marijuana can be sent to prison and risk having their medical licenses revoked.

According to the national Marijuana Policy Project, 12 states allow patients to use marijuana despite federal laws against it. A 13th state, Maryland, protects patients from jail but not arrest.

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