Medical marijuana bill clears hurdle

April 28, 2004

Noreen Gillespie, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. -- A bill that would allow seriously ill people to grow and smoke marijuana cleared one major legislative hurdle Wednesday, but now faces another. The House of Representatives voted 75-71 to approve an amendment that would let those with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other serious illnesses use the drug to relieve nausea and other symptoms, with a doctor's written permission.

It was the first time the measure passed the House.

But lawmakers sent the main bill to another committee for approval before a final vote. With the state budget and several other items still remaining on the legislative agenda, it is uncertain whether the issue will be addressed again before the legislature adjourns next Wednesday.

Lawmakers debated the proposal for about two hours Wednesday. Rep. James Abrams, D-Meriden, said he would pare the bill down to simplify it next year if it does not pass before the end of the legislative session.

"I consider today a victory," Abrams said.

Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, told lawmakers how she risked arrest to obtain marijuana 20 years ago for her husband, who died after a fight with bone cancer. After having surgery to remove a tumor from his spine, he endured side effects from chemotherapy and radiation that were not relieved by other medications.

She said the bill would also relieve caregivers of the fear of being prosecuted for helping their loved ones.

"It's a huge burden to have that kind of fear when you're doing the only thing you can do in that situation," she said.

Connecticut passed a law in the early 1980s to allow physicians to prescribe marijuana to help patients with pain and nausea. But state doctors never have, because its use is illegal under federal law.

Under the proposed law, patients and their primary caregivers would be allowed to keep as many as five plants and one usable ounce of marijuana. But lawmakers said that regulation would conflict with federal guidelines, because obtaining marijuana is still illegal.

"We cannot set this bad precedent by passing a law that in order to avail yourself of, you must break another one," said Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk.

Eight states _ Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington _ have laws protecting seriously ill patients who use medical marijuana with their doctor's recommendations.

The Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee could take up the bill as soon as Thursday. Committee Co-chairwoman Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said the panel would address the bill, but she anticipated a close vote.

"It was a victory, but it was a symbolic victory," said Neal Levine, director of state policies for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

But the progress was encouraging, he said.

"Regardless of what happens at this point, there is absolutely positive momentum behind this bill," he said.

If the bill clears the House, its supporters were not sure how much support it would have in the Senate or whether the Senate would discuss it at all.

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