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R.I. Medical-Marijuana Bill's Problems


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Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Author: Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr.
Published: Thursday, May 19, 2005
Copyright: 2005 The Providence Journal Company
Contact: [email protected]

Rhode Island -- The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes continues to be a subject of great debate. This topic has become a salient one for Rhode Island because a state Medical Marijuana Act is under consideration.

As chief judge of the Family Court, founder and past president of the New England Association for Drug Court Professionals, and a board member of the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, I am concerned about the lack of clarity in this proposed act.

Although there is still much dissension over the scientific findings on the medical use of marijuana, there is little dispute that stringent regulations are required in this matter.

Upon examining the proposed act, I see few safeguards. Qualified patients could have up to 12 marijuana plants, as well as 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana, but the bill does not refer to how patients would acquire these marijuana plants. This detail is important, because marijuana continues to be a controlled substance. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, indicating a high potential for abuse. In the proposed Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act there are no provisions for physicians to prescribe a Schedule I drug. Such a drug may only be recommended, by written certification, qualified by certain medical conditions.

Given that patients cannot obtain marijuana as they do other prescriptions, how will cannabis be obtained, delivered and transported? These are questions yet unanswered that must be addressed by regulation.

Assuming that patients could obtain 12 marijuana plants, where would they be grown? Under the current proposal, these plants could be grown in a backyard. This concern is not to imply that patients who grew marijuana would be interested in any illegal activity, yet it points to the need to address concerns of access. Under such conditions, marijuana could easily be stolen or misused in some fashion. Where are the restrictions on the disposal of "unusable marijuana," including "seeds, stalks and roots of the plants"? These parts are deemed "unusable" for medical purposes, yet should not be seen as benign or insignificant. In fact, such parts are often sought for their psychoactive properties and/or use in plant reproduction.

Physicians alone cannot effectively monitor marijuana use. Because marijuana can be only recommended, not prescribed, traditional checks and balances may be missing.

Would effective monitoring fall upon law enforcement? Law enforcement needs clarification on how to differentiate medical use from illegal possession: How would law enforcement obtain information on reasons for possession and respect a patient's right to privacy?

Although provisions are made for patients to have a registered identification card, obtained from the state Department of Health, it may be difficult for law enforcement to verify the authenticity of some cards.

At this time, there are no requirements for such cards to have pictures. This is only recommended in the proposed act. In the proposal, the Department of Health could release information to law enforcement simply by confirming a random identification number. Such a procedure raises concerns when juxtaposed with other provisions in the proposed act, which allow up to 10 days before a card can be reported as lost. The proposed act also states that if the Health Department fails to issue a "valid registry card in response to a valid application submitted pursuant to this chapter within twenty days of its submission, the registry identification card shall be deemed granted and a copy of the registry identification application shall be deemed a valid registry identification card."

How is the Health Department to know if an application is valid? The proposed act allows 15 days for the department to verify or reject an application. Delays in operations are at times inevitable; therefore, the assurance of the validity of such applications may pose unforeseen challenges. Efficiency is a priority for the patient, yet an application should not be approved before all qualifications are met.

Finally, even if the state's Medical Marijuana Act does pass, there would continue to be complications with federal laws. Given this, the proposed act states, "Any state or local law enforcement official who knowingly cooperates with federal law enforcement agents to arrest, investigate, prosecute, or search a registered qualified patient or a primary caregiver or his or her property for acting in compliance with this chapter shall have his or her employment suspended or terminated."

Such conditions may weaken law enforcement's authority to differentiate medical from non-medical marijuana use.

Marijuana is a much-sought-after drug of adolescents. Since the start of the Rhode Island Juvenile Drug Court, in 1999, the recorded number of arrests for marijuana possession is staggering. Records of the Juvenile Drug Court Diversion Program (designed to curtail first-time drug offenders) show that of 646 drug arrests, 511 involved marijuana. The Juvenile Drug Court Post Adjudication Program, which handles more serious offenses, records that out of 415 cases, 291 included marijuana charges.

In many of these cases, marijuana charges accompanied other charges, such as possessing a firearm, being disorderly, theft, truancy, driving under the influence, and possession of other serious drugs.

Thus, marijuana may not be viewed in the same light as other restricted drugs used for medical purposes, such as prescription opiates, benzodiazepines or barbiturates. Marijuana's classification as a Schedule I drug and the apparent lack of clarity in the proposed regulation are strong concerns regarding this legislation.

The issue of medical marijuana remains complex, and it is important enough to deserve our prompt attention. It is equally important to assess whether assisting one party will create conditions that jeopardize other parties. Prudent regulation of marijuana cannot be viewed as a formality; rather, it is a necessity -- one that ensures safety for young citizens and compassion for those who search for a medicinal adjunct for medical problems.

Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. is chief judge of the Rhode Island Family Court.

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