State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are supporting medical marijuana

May 25, 2005

Traci Neal , Hartford Advocate

State lawmakers will need to beat the clock to squeeze through a bill that would allow adults with cancer or another chronic condition to get high to ease painful symptoms.

Though the bill has bipartisan support and has passed without fanfare through several committees, the legislature adjourns in just a few weeks so lawmakers will need to move swiftly. Even conservative lawmakers are voting in favor of the legislation after cancer survivors and people with other chronic conditions testified in recent weeks about how marijuana has helped them.

The bill awaits a Senate vote, which had not yet been scheduled as of press time Tuesday. If it passes, the bill would be sent to the House for approval, and then to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Rell, who underwent breast cancer surgery in December, has not publicly taken a stance on the issue.

'I feel confident that the bill will be called in the Senate soon and move forward quickly from that point,' says Republican state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, one of the sponsors. 'There are several legislators working hard on the bill.' The session ends June 8.

Though federal studies have so far been reported as inconclusive, 36 states -- including Connecticut -- have passed legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value, and 10 states currently allow patients legal access to medical marijuana, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Those in favor of medical pot say people have used it medicinally for 2,000 years, that doctors prescribe drugs far more dangerous than marijuana, and that marijuana is preferred in some cases over traditional narcotics because prescription pain killers and appetite stimulants often have other serious side effects.

Chemotherapy, for instance, can cause nausea and appetite loss so severe that starvation becomes a concern. Patients have said smoking marijuana gave them the ability to tolerate food and keep it down. Recent polls showed more than 80 percent of U.S. residents polled -- and 83 percent of Connecticut residents according to a UConn survey -- approve of marijuana use for sick people.

Connecticut oncologist Andrew L. Salner, director of the Helen and Harry Gray Cancer Center at Hartford Hospital, testified at a recent public hearing on the bill. Cancer patients, he said, use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms and improve their quality of life. 'Most notably, some patients near the end of life might benefit from this approach whereby their symptoms could be lessened and they might have fewer sedating or other side effects from some of their regular medications.'

The government argues that most of the evidence supporting medical marijuana is anecdotal and unscientific. 'It should not surprise anybody that sincere people, after smoking marijuana, might report relief of any number of their symptoms. Marijuana is an intoxicant,' Walters told state lawmakers in April.

Opponents also say smoking marijuana is unhealthy and sends a mixed message to children. And despite initiatives individual states might take, it's still illegal on the federal level. John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Connecticut legislators during a recent public hearing, that state actions are presenting a challenge 'to the integrity of the drug approval process.

'By law, and for good reason, the FDA is the sole governmental entity charged with testing and approving new medications,' Walters said.

Clinical trials are difficult because there is no effective placebo for smoked marijuana. Marijuana research facilities, such as the one at UMass Amherst, say the DEA has blocked efforts to grow or obtain pot for research. Some claim pharmaceutical companies have lobbied to keep medical marijuana from becoming mainstream.

If the bill passes, users would have to register with the state, and would not be allowed to smoke in public or near anyone under the age of 18.

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