Connecticut marijuana bill killed

May 12, 2004

Jack Terceno and Deanna Holgerson, Editors, Easton Courier

The war on drugs battled its way to the state Legislature this year where lawmakers eventually voted to legalize its use.

House Majority Leader James Amann (D-118) then sent the bill to the Finance Committee, which passed it. The bill died when the 2004 session ended.

The House of Representatives passed, 79 to 72, a medical marijuana bill that would have allowed residents to grow marijuana in their homes for personal use, provided they receive a doctor's prescription for the drug.

People suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and other terminal illnesses then could have legally used marijuana. The drug reportedly eases pain, controls nausea and increases appetite in patients.

The medical marijuana bill would have made it legal for such patients to possess and cultivate up to five plants in their home. Purchasing or selling the drug would have remained illegal, even for the patients.

State Rep. James Abrams (D-Meriden) co-sponsored the bill and has fought to legalize medical marijuana for the last five years. Last year, his bill failed on the House floor by 12 votes.

The bill also won approval from the Judiciary, Appropriations and Public Health committees.

Opponents of the bill feared it would be a first step in legalizing marijuana altogether. Abrams said that was not his intention.

'I'm not in favor of legalizing marijuana,' he said, which is why his bill did not legalize purchasing the drug. 'We'd be legalizing behavior we don't want to legalize.'

Robert Rooks is executive director of the non-profit organization A Better Way, a group dedicated to reviewing drug policies in Connecticut. Rooks joined Abrams' effort two years ago.

'There are a large contingent of folks in Connecticut that are using marijuana for medical purposes,' Rooks said. 'They should no longer have to worry about potential repercussions from state government.'

Abrams said the existing use of marijuana by terminally ill patients allowed him to avoid the 'first seed' issue in his bill - the question of where patients would obtain marijuana. He and Rooks said those who need it already have it.

'We'll really be legalizing what is ongoing behavior,' he said.

State Rep. John Stripp (R-135) said he voted against the bill because he questioned the medical value of marijuana.

'I heard some very compelling testimony from people who talked about how marijuana helped terminally ill family and friends,' Stripp said. 'Prove that it works scientifically, and then have a doctor prescribe it like other pain medication.

'I'm not saying absolutely no on medical marijuana. I am saying prove that it works,' he said.

Stripp said he was concerned about the lack of control over the drug as well.

'I believe that it should be prescribed so the doctor can limit the quantity,' Stripp said. 'It shouldn't be, 'go home and grow five marijuana plants.' I'm afraid that it will become an uncontrolled situation and chaos,' he said.

The mixed message being sent to children about marijuana is also a concern of Stripp's.

'If there is someone in the home under age 18 watching a family member smoke marijuana, how do they understand that they shouldn't be smoking it?' Stripp questioned. 'Plus the child is breathing in the secondhand smoke as well.'

Stripp said he also listened to negative testimony about how marijuana is a 'gateway' drug to more serious and addictive drugs.

A gateway drug

Opponents to legalizing medical marijuana said marijuana is a 'gateway' drug that often leads to the use of cocaine and heroin.

The federal government categorizes marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it cannot be sold by prescription. Cocaine, by comparison, is a schedule 2 drug that doctors can prescribe.

Ginger Katz, a Norwalk woman whose son Ian died of a drug overdose, formed the Courage to Speak Foundation and travels the country warning children of the dangers of drug use.

She said she opposes medical marijuana legislation because it will suggest to children that smoking marijuana is okay.

'Marijuana isn't medicine - it's that simple,' Katz said. 'Medical marijuana is the beginning of legalizing it. The message to children is really loud and clear...It definitely sends a message to kids that it's okay to use.'

Katz said there are several existing drugs already available by prescription that serve the same purpose as marijuana in relieving symptoms.

Marijuana derivatives are available in pill and liquid form to help patients combat nausea and increase their appetite.

According to Abrams and Rooks, however, patients who smoke marijuana told them that the derivative medicines do not work as well.

Abrams said the lack of scientific evidence supporting those claims is not enough to ignore them.

'One reason there's no scientific evidence is that the government won't fund any studies,' he said. 'There is tons of anecdotal evidence.'

Rooks said he was troubled by efforts to remove any potential medicine from terminally ill patients.

'There are other drugs that do work,' he said. 'But we would like marijuana to be one of the options.'

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