The Marijuana Bishop? (COLUMN)

April 06, 2004

Peter Freyne, Seven Days Vermont

Three major developments on the medical marijuana front since last week. In a symbolic vote on the House floor last Wednesday, a tripartisan majority backed an amendment by Prog Rep.  David Zuckerman to add medical marijuana to the list of medications that would be studied for 'pain management' in 'the medical school, residency programs and nursing schools in Vermont.'

Zuckerman's amendment was adopted on a 79-57 roll call vote.  It was supported by several Republicans, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Peg Flory and Ways and Means Chairman Dick Marron.

Then on Friday, the ice jam suddenly broke in the House Health and Welfare Committee.  That's where S.76, the Senate-passed medical marijuana bill, has languished without discussion since last year.

Committee Democrats, with the support of Republican Rep.  Anne Donahue of Northfield, finally succeeded in getting Republican Chairman Tom Koch of Barre to hold a vote on discussing the pot bill.  On a 6-5 vote, the committee approved two days of testimony on April 14 and 15.

Last week, we reported on the Zogby Poll that showed 71 percent of Vermonters support changing state law to allow sick and dying Vermonters to use pot for pain without the threat of state prosecution.

However, as everyone knows, Republican Gov.  Jim Douglas is a staunch opponent of medical marijuana legislation.

As Gov.  Scissorhands put it last week, 'I think we need to find ways to manage pain that don't involve the use of an illegal substance.'

As for the polls that show widespread support for medical marijuana, Gov.  Douglas said, 'I don't make my decisions based on public opinion polls.  I do what I think is right for the state.'

But Gov.  Scissorhands, the state's top ribbon-cutter, isn't the only Vermont leader trying to do what's right for the state.

Seven Days has learned that the leader of Vermont's largest religious denomination -- Roman Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell -- supports the Senate-passed medical marijuana bill.

That's right, our old pal from the Civil Unions War of 2000, the Bingo Bishop, believes legalizing pot for the sick and suffering is the Christian thing to do and the right way for Vermont to go.

Last month, the Marijuana Policy Project sent out a targeted mailing to citizens in the home districts of House members who sit on the Health and Welfare Committee.  The other day, Rep.  Bill Keogh ( D-Burlington ) showed us the stack of about 300 postcards he'd received urging him to support medical marijuana.

One of Keogh's postcards stood out.  It was signed by 'Kenneth A.  Angell' and listed the Burlington address of the Bishop's official residence.

The Lord sure works in strange ways, eh?

Yours truly contacted the Catholic diocese and spoke with the Diocesan Chancellor, Fr.  Walter Miller.  We asked if he was aware that his Bishop supports the legalization of pot for medical purposes.

He said he was not.

Then we told him about Bishop Angell's pro-marijuana postcard.

Fr.  Miller said someone would get back to us.

Because it's Holy Week, we were told the Bishop is 'up to his neck' in church-related activities and would not be able to speak personally with Seven Days.  Instead, Gloria Gibson, communications director for diocese, sent us the following statement:

'Bishop Angell is indeed in favor of controlled substance prescriptions for medical marijuana.  The movement has substantial and respectable support from physicians, social workers and legislators of thought.  Certainly the dangers of misuse can be no greater than the existing legal availability of many controlled substances.

'I believe that such low risk drugs are an important and humane contribution to pain control and quality end-of-life care.' 

Amen.

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