Pubdate: Wed, 26 May 2004
Source: Herald of Randolph, The (VT)
Copyright: 2004 OurHerald, Inc.
Author:  Norman Runnion
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


Montpelier -- Rep. Sylvia Kennedy, R-Chelsea, tried to stop him. The White 
House tried to stop him. But Gov. James Douglas turned down both and let 
the highly controversial medical marijuana bill become law this week.

Was it a tough decision? "Very difficult," said press secretary Jason 
Gibbs. He paused. "Very difficult," he said again.

Rep. Kennedy notwithstanding, the toughest opposition Douglas faced was 
from President George W. Bush's administration, which is of more than 
passing interest because Douglas is Bush's reelection campaign manager in 
Vermont. John Walters, the so-called "drug czar" whose office of National 
Drug Control Policy is in the White House itself, tried twice to talk 
Douglas out of his decision.

The first time came last Wednesday, the day before the Legislature 
adjourned for the year. Walters wanted the governor to veto the bill. But 
the two of them didn't connect that day. When Douglas returned Walters' 
telephone call from the White House, the czar had left.

Instead, Douglas issued a statement saying he would let the bill, which has 
passed the Democrat-dominated Senate originally and then, surprisingly, the 
Republican-dominated House, become law without his signature.

That was on Wednesday. Late Thursday the governor and the czar actually talked.

"The conversation was frank," Gibbs said. "The drug czar expressed his 
opinion and the governor listened politely."

Sylvia Kennedy, meanwhile, was steaming. "I'm very, very disappointed," she 
said. "I spoke to him about it. I certainly did ask him to veto it. I can't 
believe it."

Also opposing the bill were Reps. Carroll Ketchum, R-Bethel, Philip 
Winters, R-Williamstown, and Stephen Webster, R-Randolph. Supporting it 
were Patsy French, D-Randolph, Rosemary McLaughlin, D-Royalton, and Sen. 
Mark MacDonald, D-Orange. The bill passed the House on a 79-48 vote, which 
meant that a goodly number of Republicans supported it.

One obvious opinion around the Statehouse was that Douglas tried to have 
the best of all worlds-both ways. By not vetoing the bill, he pleased those 
who believe marijuana does provide some comfort to seriously ill people. As 
he said in a statement, "Over the last several months, the faces of 
Vermonters in real pain have advocated for the use of marijuana for symptom 
relief. They are the husbands and wives who nursed dying spouses in their 
final days; they are sons and daughters who watched once-healthy parents 
wither and waste away. I feel, as most Vermonters do, that we must do what 
we can to ease the pain of dying Vermonters."

But by not legally signing it, he can argue, as he did, that "I cannot 
actively support a measure that allows Vermonters to be subject to 
prosecution under federal law, increases the availability of a controlled 
substance, and sends a dangerous message to our children."

Now that's all well and good, but what Vermonters know, and President Bush 
knows, and Sylvia Kennedy knows, is that the Republican governor of Vermont 
"aided and abetted," to use a legal phrase, in making a very limited use of 
pot legal in this state. Could he be charged with aiding and abetting? The 
governor looked very surprised. "I hadn't thought of that," he said at a 
news conference.

Certainly it's not a good political move to make the drug czar unhappy, 
particularly John Walters, who was personally selected by President Bush 
and who has a reputation as a hardliner who believes in stiff prison 
sentences for hardcore druggies. In the 1990s Walters has made a career out 
of drug enforcement, serving several years under the first drug "czar," 
William Bennett. He is a vocal critic of the kind of medical marijuana use 
that Douglas is permitting in Vermont, saying, "What is really going on is 
that sick and dying people are being used as a political prop to legalize 

He made that pitch personally in Oregon last summer. This winter, his 
deputy, Andrea Barthwell, came to Montpelier in an unsuccessful effort to 
get the Legislature to dump its plans for medical marijuana. Pot can be 
legally cultivated and used for medicinal purposes in, besides Vermont and 
Oregon, Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Washington.

The Bush administration, unlike the governor, is single-minded on the 
subject of medical pot. It has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether 
the government can withdraw a doctor's license to prescribe drugs if 
marijuana is in fact prescribed, as would be necessary in the bill passed 
by the Vermont House and Senate and allowed by the governor to become law.

The new Vermont law specifically exempts prescribing physicians from any 
state legal penalties including arrest, prosecution or disciplinary action. 
But of course that leaves the drug czar free to go after any Vermont (or 
Oregon) doctor for violating federal law if the Bush administration gets 
clearance from the Supreme Court's eventual ruling and wants to make an 
example of someone somewhere.

As it is, the new law "recognizes" that it's still illegal in Vermont to 
sell marijuana and marijuana seeds even if medical use is permitted. This 
means, the law says, that "patients will be forced to procure medical 
marijuana illegally until the federal government removes marijuana from its 
list of schedule I substances or allows states to permit the medical use of 
marijuana without violating federal law."

Nevertheless, the legislature said, "the purpose of this act is to ensure 
that physicians are not penalized for discussing marijuana as a treatment 
option with their patients, and that seriously ill people who engage in 
medical use of marijuana are not arrested or incarcerated for limited 
medical use of marijuana."

The law applies to some specific "debilitating medical conditions," 
including cancer, AIDS, or multiple sclerosis, which produce such severe 
symptoms as acute pain and/or nausea.

At the same time, it is necessary that "reasonable medical efforts have 
been made over a reasonable amount of time without success in relieving the 
symptoms." In other words, pot is a prescription of last resort.

The marijuana must be prescribed by a patient's regular doctor to either 
the patient or to a caregiver whose name, along with that of the patient, 
must be registered with the state police. In fact, the state police, 
through the Department of Public Safety, are in charge of everything. That 
came out in the House version of the bill. The Senate version, which 
Douglas opposed as "all about cultivation and not compassion," gave 
enforcement authority to the Health Department.

Even so, not a lot of pot is involved-one mature marijuana plant, two 
immature plants and two ounces of usable marijuana.

The pot plants must be kept in a "secure indoor facility" which means a 
building or room equipped with locks that permit access only to the 
registered caregiver or registered patient. The pot can only be 
"transported" to the patient in a locked container, and all this stuff must 
be given back to the state police within 72 hours of a patient's death.

All applications for a medical use card, which include the patient's name 
and photograph, must be submitted, along with a $100 fee, to the Department 
of Public Safety, which then will contact the patient's doctor to see if 
permission really has been granted. It is a heavily bureaucratic procedure, 
which probably is the only way it could become law even without the 
governor 's signature.

His staff said Douglas didn't make up his mind until the very last minute. 
What seems to have persuaded him was conversations he said he had with 
relatives of cancer victims, not the victims themselves.

That also appears to be the concern of one of the governor's supporters on 
this decision, the Catholic bishop of Vermont, Kenneth Angell. He said in a 
message to Douglas, who is a loyal member of the (Protestant) United Church 
of Christ, that the real intent of the marijuana bill "is to offer relief 
and solace from chronic, severe suffering and pain." The Douglas staff 
quickly made the bishop's message public.

One of the governor's constant concerns was about the "message" that would 
be sent to young people. He conceded that letting a bill become law but not 
signing it was sort of a mixed message to kids. "But I want to explain it," 
he said. "I want to explain that under very limited circumstances, the 
legislature said it's okay."

At a press conference a reporter wanted to know if the governor had ever 

"No," Douglas said. Firmly exhaling. 
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