Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Author: Liz Anderson, Journal State House Bureau
Published: Wednesday, April 6, 2005
Copyright: 2005 The Providence Journal Company
Contact: [email protected]
Providence, Rhode Island -- Support is building in both the House and
the Senate for passage of a bill to legalize the medical use of
marijuana in Rhode Island, an idea endorsed by leaders of the General
Assembly, the Rhode Island Medical Society and the Rhode Island State
In the House, 50 lawmakers have signed on to the bill, including
Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence. The lead sponsor, Rep.
Thomas Slater, D-Providence, said House Speaker William J. Murphy,
D-West Warwick, had pledged his support.
In the Senate, the cosponsors include Senate President Joseph Montalbano,
D-North Providence; Majority Leader Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport; and
Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, whose
committee last night gave the bill its legislative debut for the year
The bill proposes to protect patients, their caregivers and doctors from
arrest if a doctor certifies to the Department of Health that the
patient has a debilitating condition and the benefit of marijuana
treatment would outweigh any health risks.
Among the illnesses that could be covered would be cancer, glaucoma,
HIV-AIDS, hepatitis C, or another "chronic or debilitating disease" that
results in symptoms such as nausea, seizures, wasting, chronic pain or
The patient or caregiver, who would be issued registration cards by the
Department of Health, could not possess more than 12 plants, or 2.5
ounces of "usable marijuana," at any time.
Senate sponsor Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, said Rhode Island would be the
11th state to legalize the limited use of marijuana.
"We believe this bill is about compassion for those with serious illness
and those who are on the precipice of dying," she told colleagues.
Rhonda O'Donnell, 42, of Warwick, rolled her wheelchair to the witness
stand and walked stiffly to the seat provided. She told senators she was
a registered nurse and mother of two who has suffered the effects of
multiple sclerosis for more than a decade.
O'Donnell said her symptoms include "painful spasticity" and burning
sensations in her legs. She takes 11 pills a day, does physical therapy
and has had cortisone shots in her spine. Still, she said, some symptoms
of her disease do not respond to traditional therapies.
She knows some people who have found relief from using marijuana, and
said she would consider trying it herself to alleviate stiffness and
pain, although she has not, so far.
"Please make this issue a medical one rather than a political one," she
Warren Dolbashian, 33, of Cranston, said marijuana has helped address
severe motor tics from Tourette's syndrome that dislocated his joints,
and continuous pain after a series of surgeries. Marijuana, he said, has
proven the best treatment to relieve his symptoms.
"It is not right to allow sick people to live in fear of arrest for
using a doctor-approved medicine that works," he said.
Kaelyn McGregor, whose cancer has spread from her breast to her lungs
and bones, said smoking marijuana during chemotherapy helps patients
"normalize" their lives by minimizing nausea and alleviating physical
symptoms of anxiety. And Dr. Margaret Sun, a family practitioner in East
Providence, said marijuana immediately eases the symptoms of her own
sister, who suffers from a severe, progressive case of multiple
The sponsors have their own personal stories. Perry's nephew died last
year from AIDS, but never sought relief through marijuana, fearing
arrest. Slater is undergoing cancer treatment, and said he would not
rule out using the drug if his health worsened.
Dr. David Lewis, former director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction
Studies at Brown, said doctors generally don't dispute that marijuana
can help some patients. The issue for some groups, he said, is whether
to endorse using a drug that must be smoked and wouldn't be approved by
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
J. Michael Walker, chairman of the neuroscience department at Indiana
University and a former Brown professor, said marijuana has painkilling
properties akin to morphine. He said it can help some patients whom
conventional treatments don't reach.
The bill also drew the support of AIDS Project Rhode Island and the
American Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island chapter. But it drew
critical letters from the national Drug-Free Schools Coalition and the
group Drug-Free Kids: America's Challenge.
Sen. Leo Blais, R-Coventry, a pharmacist, also blasted the bill.
"We need to be crystal clear that this initiative is an initiative to
legalize marijuana," he said. "The exemptions in the statute are large
enough to drive a tank through." Blais said marijuana has "no accepted
medical value," and called it wrong to sanction violating federal law by
citing "a compassionate reason."
Perry retorted that she did not support the broad legalization of any
The bill may face revisions. Sen. Joseph Polisena, D-Johnston, a
cosponsor and nurse, said the provisions for prescribing marijuana must
be narrow enough that recreational drug users can't use it as a shield.
Another cosponsor, Sen. Michael Damiani, D-East Providence, a retired
police officer, noted that the bill has another issue: it does not
answer how the patient acquires the drug, once sanctioned to use it.
Note: An opponent says the bill, which has attracted prominent sponsors
and received support at a hearing yesterday, would sanction breaking the
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Senator Believes There's Support for Marijuana
Medical Marijuana in Rhode Island