Democracy loses out on marijuana vote

May 11, 2004

EDITORIAL, Hamden Journal

We Americans like to think of ourselves as living in a representative democracy, where we elect leaders who vote to determine the course of our laws and society. When a vote succeeds, we believe, then that bill is passed.

This is not always the case. In fact, in the hallowed halls of the state capitol, democracy is sometimes hard to find.

Take the medical marijuana bill that Rep. James Abrams (D-83) reintroduced this year, after it failed in the House by 12 votes in 2003. The bill would allow patients suffering from such diseases as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis to cultivate marijuana legally for medicinal purposes. The drug reportedly eases pain, stimulates appetite and controls nausea.

Put aside whether you believe marijuana should be legal for medicinal use. Let's focus instead on the process by which it might become legal, or be denied such legitimacy.

This session, Abrams' bill faced scrutiny from three committees - Judiciary, Appropriations and Public Health - and all three approve the bill. So it went to the House floor for a vote.

Normally, a bill approved on the House floor is then sent to the Senate for its approval; or, if the Senate approves the bill first, it travels to the governor's office for his signature.

Those of us who believe we live in a democracy rely on such a straightforward system. But the system is an illusion.

The medical marijuana bill passed the House vote. A majority approved the bill, which should have meant it went to the Senate. The House approved the bill less than a week before the session was scheduled to end, so time was of the essence.

That fact clearly was not lost on Democratic House Majority Leader James Amann (D-118). Amann was one of the few Democrats who voted against the medical marijuana bill, but it won anyway.

So what did the House leader do next? Did he accept defeat and forward the bill to his colleagues in the Senate, as he should have?

No. Amann flew in the face of democracy and sent the bill instead to a fourth committee, Finance, knowing full well that there was very little time for that committee to act on the bill and return it for a House vote in time to send it to the Senate before the session ended.

Amann killed the bill because he disagreed with it. His action was a slap in the face to the democratic system - though it is a slap that resounds in Hartford again and again, as legislators regularly use the committee system to kill bills they oppose, rather than let the Legislature vote and live with the results.

The Finance Committee actually passed the medical marijuana bill, but House leaders refused to return it to the floor for another vote before the session ended. Thus a bill that the majority of our elected representatives voted to approve - a bill that could help assuage the suffering of terminally ill residents - did not become law.

That is not democracy.

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