Lawmakers take testimony on Vermont medical marijuana bill

April 13, 2004

Tim Cahill, Associated Press, Providence Journal

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The Democratic and Republican candidates for governor aired their differences over using marijuana for medical purposes Wednesday, while the personal, legal and scientific facets of the issue intertwined in testimony before a panel of legislators.

'I believe that we as Vermonters need to ask ourselves whether it makes any sense for Vermonters with life-threatening illnesses to face arrest or legal penalties for the simple act of taking a natural medicine that relieves their suffering,' Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, the Democratic candidate for governor, told lawmakers.

'It sends a mixed message to young people in our state,' said Gov. James Douglas, the Republican incumbent, said at his weekly news conference.

Both men were referring to a bill in front of the Health and Welfare Committee that would exempt patients with certain chronic conditions or illnesses - cancer, HIV or glaucoma, for example - from arrest and prosecution for possession of limited amounts of marijuana.

The committee spent the day taking testimony on the bill, which was approved by the Senate last year.

'If the intent of the legislation is to decriminalize marijuana, just do it,' said Dr. Jamie O'Brien, president of the Vermont Medical Society. 'Don't dress it up as medicinal.'

O'Brien said the evidence claiming the efficacy of marijuana as a pain reliever was too anecdotal for him to support the bill.

Commissioner of Public Safety Kerry Sleeper said the measure, if passed, would cause an increase in petty crime and a proliferation of the drug trade in Vermont.

'You cannot debate this legislation without realizing the lack of adequate controls,' he said.

Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, called such statements 'myths based on fear.'

'Hopefully we can get it to the (House) floor,' said Zuckerman, who is sponsoring the legislation.

That assessment was not shared by Thomas Koch - the Barre Republican who chairs the committee - and Douglas, who said he hoped to work with legislators to keep the bill from reaching his desk.

At his news conference Douglas defended his support of a bill to decriminalize up to one ounce of marijuana when he was a state representative in 1978. He said he voted for the measure because of the impact people arrested for drugs were having on the corrections system.

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