House panel may snuff pot bill

April 08, 2008

Cynthia Needham, The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — Acknowledging that a proposal to create medical marijuana dispensary centers will face a tough road in the House, sponsor Thomas C. Slater said he would be satisfied if the Assembly instead establishes a commission to study the possibility, with an eye toward passing the legislation next year.

His comments came after House Health, Education and Welfare Committee Chairman Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, said he “didn’t see a lot of general support for this legislation at this time” and did not anticipate that the bill would win passage by the committee, despite widespread empathy for patients who use medical marijuana, but cannot legally and safely purchase it.

Slater, D-Providence, said he will continue to push for such approval, even if it takes time. “We had overwhelming passage of the marijuana bill itself, but I think when it comes to dispensaries, there are a lot more law-and-order people out there who say ‘oh no, you can’t do that,’ ” Slater said. “… If I can’t get a commitment from the committee to pass the bill, I think it would be a good idea to form a commission to study it.”

McNamara agreed that a formal study of the issue would provide a good compromise. “I think there’s general support for a commission to look into this problem [of dispensaries] and see specifically what other states have done and what problems they are having with it,” he said.

Slater’s proposal and an identical one in the Senate call for expanding last year’s permanent medical marijuana legislation to create licensed marijuana dispensaries, or “compassion centers,” that would legally grow and sell the drug at affordable prices to the 359 patients in the state’s program. The centers would be regulated by the Health Department and would also offer education services to eligible patients and their caregivers.

The idea is to relieve Rhode Island’s patients of a tough choice: growing their own drug or buying it on the street.

At least 12 states nationwide have laws allowing use of medical marijuana. But policies governing dispensaries are more fractured and several states have stumbled in trying to pass legislation for distribution centers.

Part of the problem is that federal law still bans marijuana usage, even for medical purposes. Dozens of dispensaries in California (one of two states that allows them) have been raided by the federal government, something medical marijuana supporters say they don’t want to see happen here.

“Medical marijuana is a controversial issue,” said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a California-based medical marijuana advocacy group. Nationwide, he said “lawmakers are cautious and there are reasons for that caution; law enforcement is still stuck in a drug war mentality.”

Still, Hermes and Jesse Stout, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, say the creation of dispensaries will prove important to the ongoing success of medical marijuana programs here and across the country.

In a Health, Education and Welfare Committee hearing yesterday, committee members listened as Rhode Island medical marijuana patients shared stories of how they were forced onto the streets to purchase the drug they need to help ease the chronic pain that accompanies their cancer, AIDS and other illnesses.

The members also asked tough questions about how the centers would function and who will run them.

The legislation has gotten an easier ride in a Senate Health and Human Services Committee, where members were expected to approve the measure at a hearing this afternoon. It will then go to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Slater said he will wait to see what happens in the Senate before proposing any formal changes to his bill.

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