Medical marijuana topic of high debate in Wilton forum

December 05, 2007

Justin Reynolds, The Wilton Bulletin (CT)

The topic of the legalization of medical marijuana has elicited high debate in the past, and last week was no exception. The Wilton League of Women Voters continued its “hot topic” discussion series, hosting a forum on the topic in the Brubeck Room of the Wilton Library last Thursday.

The league invited two politicians to discuss the legal aspects of medical marijuana and two physicians to talk about the medical side.

State Rep.
Toni Boucher, Republican of the 143rd District, spoke against the legalization of medical marijuana while State Rep. Michael Lawlor, Democrat of the 99th District, voiced his support.

“For me, this issue has a lot to do with the integrity of the criminal justice system,” said Mr. Lawlor, a lawyer and professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. “When the criminal justice system is fighting a losing battle” we must “reconsider whether or not the criminal justice system is the right venue” to address the issue.

Mr. Lawlor said most law enforcement officers would not arrest someone for possession of marijuana if it was clear that person was using the drug to help combat a “legitimate illness.”

Mr. Lawlor told the story of Mark Braunstein, a librarian at Connecticut College, who became paralyzed from the waist down in 1990. Mr. Braunstein has been very vocal of the fact he grows marijuana in his house and smokes it to help alleviate his pain.

“To this day, no law enforcement agency has taken action against him,” Mr. Lawlor said.

Because this law is not being enforced, Mr. Lawlor said he believes it needs to be changed.

“Without a modification of the law, people will lose respect for the criminal justice system,” he said.

Earlier this year, Connecticut’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana, by a vote of 89-58. The bill would have allowed sick patients to grow up to four, four-foot plants. The state Senate voted in favor of the bill, 23-13.

Mr. Lawlor said the bill was “debated at great length” and “modified significantly.”

“We talked about all the legitimate concerns,” Mr. Lawlor said. “It seems to me this proposal met the legitimate concerns of the people who raised them.”

Mr. Lawlor described the vote as “overwhelmingly bipartisan.”

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, however, vetoed the bill in June, which would have made Connecticut the 14th state to have legalized medical marijuana.

Ms. Boucher supported Ms. Rell in her veto, and continued her support of the governor’s stance on the issue at Thursday’s forum.

“Proponents have gone a long way to say the drug is benign,” Ms. Boucher said. “The facts just simply are not there.”

Ms. Boucher said studies have shown marijuana can lead to tumors, damaged lungs, cancer and impaired memory and learning.

“Legalizing marijuana for any purpose undermines everything we’ve done,” Ms. Boucher said. “It is not the same drug of the 60s and 70s. It is much more powerful and addictive.”

“We want them to live a healthy life,” Ms. Boucher said of potential medical marijuana patients. By prescribing them marijuana, patients could develop “a secondary problem that could be worse than the first,” she said.

Ms. Boucher went on to say legalizing medical marijuana was “counterintuitive to everything we know.”

An elected official’s job is “to improve the living of people we represent,” she said. “It does not save or improve lives,” she said of marijuana.

Larry Katz, a father who lost his son to an overdose in 1996, commented to the panel after their presentations.

“We have to set clear guidelines for young people,” Mr. Katz said, adding that legalizing medical marijuana is “giving children another reason to take it” by telling their parents it’s a medicine.

Medical side

Two physicians who treat cancer patients were also on the panel. Dr. Andrea Ruskin, of Norwalk Hospital, and Dr. Seyed Aleali, of St. Vincent’s Hospital generally agreed they wouldn’t prescribe marijuana to their patients and that enough research hasn’t yet been done to conclude there are enough medicinal benefits of the drug.

“I’m not so convinced that marijuana is a great pain reliever. I’m not so convinced marijuana controls nausea,” Dr. Ruskin said, adding that more studies need to be done to verify or disprove these claims.

If new studies show medicinal benefits, “I would be all for approval,” she said.

“What is lacking is a mode of delivery for THC,” Dr. Aleali said of marijuana’s most psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol. “We have drugs that are much more powerful” than marijuana, he said. “As a physician, I think I have enough stuff at my disposal.”

Selectman Ted Hoffstatter said while it was “great” to have the forum on a controversial topic, he “felt it was one sided.”

“Studies all over the world have been done to show the possible benefits” of medicinal marijuana, Mr. Hoffstatter said.

“I’ve heard story after story after story of people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens who told us that this helped them,” Mr. Lawlor said of medical marijuana patients. “Feeling that they’re breaking the law adds to their suffering. To me that’s the most compelling argument.”

Since the law would allow patients to grow four, four-foot plants, Ms. Boucher said it would be difficult to monitor whether it was obeyed.

“The opportunity for abuse here is just so high,” she said. “Four plants can produce thousands of joints of marijuana” and “there’s no way to administer dosage.”

The medical community has yet to come to an agreement on its stance on medical marijuana, the doctors said.

“It would put us in an awkward situation as doctors,” Dr. Ruskin said. “There’s no consensus in the medical community that the benefits outweigh the risk. I would have a lot of ethical issues writing prescriptions.”

“I don’t think there is any reason for us with all this information to use marijuana as a pain reliever,” Dr. Aleali said, adding legalization of medical marijuana will “never ever” occur, “not in my lifetime, not in your lifetime.”

Bigger picture

While the forum was centered around the discussion of medical marijuana, many agreed the push to approve medical marijuana was part of the issue of outright legalization of the drug and the effect it might have on children.

Ms. Boucher said more people are now seeking treatment for marijuana than for heroin and cocaine.

“We know we have a system where over 90% are arrested for personal use,” Mr. Hoffstatter said, adding it “doesn’t mean they’re addicts” and that they’re “mandated to go to treatment” by the courts.

Clifford Thornton, the Green Party’s candidate for governor of Connecticut in 2006, attended the event. Mr. Thornton also serves on the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“I think there was a lot of mis- and dis-information given,” Mr. Thornton said in an interview following the event. “It was a decent forum, but most of the people there were uninformed.”

Mr. Thornton took the approach of listener at the forum, as he said he wanted to sit back and hear what people thought about the issue and not influence the discussion himself.

“What I picked up is that a lot of people are still in the dark,” he said. “I’m not arguing for drug use, I’m arguing for a reasonable approach to this problem,” he said, adding the problem is “created and sustained by the very laws themselves.”

Mr. Lawlor repeated he was mostly interested in the criminal justice side of the issue.

“The goal of our policy should be to prevent the use of drugs,” he said, adding that our country’s current policy doesn’t seem to eliminate drug use.

“How well are we doing with the War on Drugs?” Mr. Lawlor asked. “Thirty years is enough time to see if the policy is working. We’re spending more money to run prisons in Connecticut than we are spending on colleges. What we’re doing now is just not working.”

Mr. Lawlor said poll data suggests as many as 80% of Americans favor decriminalization of marijuana.

“It’s important to point out that on this issue, if you look at polls, an overwhelming percent support the idea of decriminalization and regulating medical marijuana,” he said.

“I do feel like polls are not accurate,” Ms. Boucher said, adding “questions are phrased unfairly.”

“Yes, we have a massive problem here” but if we legalize medical marijuana “our problems can be magnified, our costs can be magnified,” she said. “The agenda is not about medical marijuana, but about the legalization of drugs.”

Mr. Thornton said Connecticut stood to gain millions of dollars from legalized marijuana, and agreed with Ms. Boucher’s sentiment that legalizing medical marijuana is a step towards pushing for the legalization of marijuana.

“It’s definitely a wedge issue,” Mr. Thornton said. “Don’t get me wrong here, the push for medical marijuana is for sick people, however — and to me it’s a no-brainer — it is definitely a wedge issue and the broader issue is the outright legalization of marijuana.”

“What we need to do is expose the issue,” he said. “In this history of man, no one has died from direct ingestion of marijuana. People are never going to stop using this drug, at least that’s what history shows.”

“I do not advocate the use of drugs in any way, shape, or form,” Mr. Hoffstatter said, adding he thinks the medical marijuana bill, however, “should have passed.”

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