Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Author: Liz Anderson, Journal State House Bureau
Published: Thursday, May 19, 2005
Copyright: 2005 The Providence Journal Company
Contact: [email protected]
Providence, Rhode Island -- Lawmakers with their own family stories of
cancer treatments and patients who have suffered the agony of
debilitating diseases stepped forward last night to urge a House
committee to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons.
But the bill, which appears to be gaining steam in both chambers of the
Assembly, also drew opposition from both the Carcieri administration and
state police, and concerns from a chief state court judge.
The House Health, Education and Welfare Committee did not vote on the
bill, which has been sponsored by two-thirds of the chamber's members.
But the committee chairman, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick,
expressed a willingness to work on the issue.
"I don't think anyone I've talked to is against giving people who are
chronically ill any substance that can help them," he said before the
hearing. McNamara said his concerns were the safety of the drug, and
"instituting proper controls" on its use.
The bill would make Rhode Island the 11th state to protect patients,
their caregivers and doctors from arrest under state drug laws if a
doctor certifies, to the state Health Department, that a patient has a
debilitating condition -- such as cancer, glaucoma, nausea, or AIDS --
that could be helped through marijuana.
The state would issue the patient and his or her caregiver registration
cards that would authorize the possession of up to 12 plants or 2.5
ounces of "usable marijuana" at any time. The bill does not address
where the marijuana would come from.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill in early
April, and tonight is expected to pass it to the full Senate for a floor
Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, said there would be several
changes proposed before its approval, including language to "tighten up"
Health Department controls.
The House sponsor, Rep. Thomas C. Slater, D-Providence, said he had been
told the Senate planned to increase the minimum age for a sanctioned
caregiver from 18 to 21, and increase the time the Department of Health
has to review an application, among other tweaks.
Slater said he was discussing other potential changes in the House
committee, including reducing the amount of marijuana allowed at any
given time and requiring the Health Department to distribute the drug.
In a March 2004 poll for the Marijuana Policy Project, Zogby
International asked Rhode Island residents whether they would support a
bill "that would allow people with cancer, AIDS and other serious
illnesses to use and grow their own marijuana for medical purposes, as
long as their physician approves." The response was 69 percent in favor,
26 percent opposed, and 5 percent unsure.
Still, Governor Carcieri's administration yesterday opposed the change.
In a letter to the committee, Dr. David Gifford, director of the
Department of Health, noted the bill does not address how people would
get the drug, and said asking the state to regulate it "is problematic."
Gifford also wrote that the "principle active ingredient" in marijuana
-- THC -- is available in pill form, and contended smoking marijuana
plants "does not appear to be superior" as a treatment. (The patients
who testified strongly disagreed, saying many people found the pill
The bill also drew opposition from the state police and from Rhode
Island Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, who sent lobbyist
David Tassoni to express concern that legalizing medical marijuana could
make the drug more accessible generally and undo the court's work to
crack down on marijuana use among young people.
Tassoni suggested the bill needed serious "tweaking."
Lt. LeRoy Rose, of the Rhode Island State Police, said the bill did not
define what constituted a "debilitating disease" and suggested
legalizing marijuana could potentially increase the state's already high
number of drug and alcohol fatalities.
Also, he said, if someone licensed to use marijuana is in a car accident
and under the influence of the drug, the bill protects them from
prosecution -- a protection not afforded someone who has become drowsy
from a prescribed painkiller.
Slater, the House sponsor, knows the pain cancer can cause. His father,
uncle and brother died of the disease; of six siblings, four --
including him -- have been cancer patients. Slater was diagnosed two
years ago with breast cancer, which spread to his lungs; he begins
radiation therapy this summer for an unrelated diagnosis of prostate
He said his own experience has made him more compassionate about the
issue, though, "I'm not that sick that I think I would need [marijuana]"
"People who really need it are those on their final days who can't eat,
can't keep anything down," he said, or who are in constant pain. Rep.
Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, spoke of losing a brother to cancer,
and more recently, a cousin. His brother, he said, wasted away from an
athletic 220 pounds to less than 100 pounds before his death.
The bill, he said, is "not about illicit use of marijuana in the streets
. . . This is compassion in its greatest form."
Among the groups supporting the measure are the Rhode Island Medical
Society, the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, the Rhode Island
Academy of Family Physicians, the American Bar Association, and AIDS
Project Rhode Island.
Patients such as Debra Nievera, of Coventry, who said she suffers from
rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and Crohn's disease, urged the
bill's passage. Nievera, a slender woman with long curly hair, told the
committee that traditional treatments haven't provided relief for her
pain, so "I am seeking alternatives that will somehow allow me to lead a
"Take a good look at me," she said. "Do I look like somebody who should
be arrested or thrown in jail because I choose to use medical marijuana
to help me with my pain?"
The committee also heard from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stockbroker Irvin
Rosenfeld, who said he is one of a handful of surviving patients who
legally receive marijuana through a federal program.
Rosenfeld said he joined the program in 1982 and is regularly shipped
300 cigarettes at a time in a tin. By his account, he smokes up to a
dozen marijuana cigarettes a day to successfully alleviate the pain from
a condition that causes him to sprout painful tumors on the ends of his
The program was discontinued a decade later, and the federal government
has not shown a willingness to address the issue since, Rosenfeld said,
leaving it up to the states to act.
Note: No vote is taken on a bill that would make Rhode Island the 11th
state to protect patients, their caregivers and doctors from arrest
under state drug laws.
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