Medical marijuana use gets small win

April 28, 2004

Keith M. Phaneuf, Journal Inquirer - Connecticut

HARTFORD -- A measure to allow some severely ill patients to legally grow and use marijuana for medical reasons gained a victory Wednesday in the House of Representatives, though it hit a procedural snag and the measure's chances of success remain very much in doubt.

Still, advocates of the measure, who watched a similar bill fail by 15 votes in the House a year ago, hailed as a major victory Wednesday's 75-71 vote to adopt a key amendment tied to this year's marijuana bill.


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"Hopefully, we are a reflection of the public and the people we represent, and I believe they are coming to an understanding that this is about bringing relief to some people who are really suffering," said Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, a co-sponsor of the legislation.


Technically, the House did not adopt the bill. It was referred to the Finance Committee after the chamber passed an amendment that would require patients approved for marijuana use to purchase a state license. Because this amendment created a small but new revenue stream for the state, it must be reviewed by the Finance Committee within the next three days.


But even if it is approved in committee and returned to the House, it's very possible the amended bill may not be called for further debate.


Rep. James W. Abrams, D-Meriden, another supporter, conceded that "there's never been any guarantee we would even be taken up in the Senate," where some lawmakers say the bill is likely to fail. And, given that the subject tends to stir lengthy debates, House leaders may not want to spend more time on a matter with little future -- especially because there are many other subjects to cover before the 2004 legislative session ends at midnight Wednesday.


This year's bill wasn't offered as a first step toward legalizing all uses of the drug, Abrams told the House. Rather, it's an effort to make existing state law governing marijuana use workable to help people in extreme pain.


"This is about helping some of the most vulnerable members of our society," he said.


Bacchiochi told her colleagues that in the 1980s she risked arrest to purchase marijuana for her husband, who had contracted bone cancer. Facing chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and surgery to remove a spinal tumor, he suffered intense pain and debilitating nausea until he died, Bacchiochi said, adding that the legal status quo "prosecutes sick and dying people who are trying to get just a little relief.


"He tried every single drug given to him," she said, but marijuana was the only drug that provided relief. "I know that I had to risk prosecution and the possibility of having a criminal record. But I did it because I would have done anything to help someone I love get some relief."


Connecticut has had a law since the early 1980s that allows marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes under special circumstances.


The problem, though, is getting the marijuana to the patients.


Since the late 1980s, tougher federal penalties against procuring the drug have left doctors and pharmacists in Connecticut afraid to prescribe or provide it -- despite the state law.


The bill debated Wednesday would have given patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, and other chronically painful illnesses permission to grow up to five marijuana plants, provided they are kept in a secure, indoor area. Those patients would have to obtain a certificate from their physicians confirming their illnesses, but the doctors would not be responsible for actually prescribing the marijuana.


The bill would not require health insurance policies to cover medicinal marijuana use.


Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, argued against the measure, saying he believes it is an indirect way to promote marijuana use.


"It's a dangerous drug," he said, adding that it is one of the leading drugs behind addiction problems with young adults in the United States.


The pain-reducing effects of smoking marijuana can be obtained legally in pill or liquid medicinal form, Farr said.


"You have to be able to ingest this drug in a cloud of carcinogenic materials?" he said. "Why are we doing this?"


Eight states have laws protecting seriously ill patients who cultivate and use marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

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