Pubdate: Fri, 6 Mar 2009
Source: Call, The (Woonsocket, RI)
Copyright: 2009 The Call
Author: Jim Baron
Cited: Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition
Referenced: The House bill
Referenced: The Senate bill
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


PROVIDENCE - Without committing to bringing the bill out of the House 
Health Education and Welfare Committee that he chairs, Warwick Rep. 
Joseph McNamara said he looks more kindly this year toward a bill 
that would establish state-authorized dispensaries to distribute 
medical marijuana.

The Senate passed legislation last year to create the "compassion 
centers," but the House HEW committee, upon McNamara's 
recommendation, amended the bill to establish a commission to study the issue.

The amended bill passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. 
Donald Carcieri.

Providence Rep. Thomas Slater implored McNamara to allow the bill out 
of committee without creating a study commission. Slater is a 
champion of medical marijuana legislation in the General Assembly; 
his name is in the title of the bill that authorized patients with 
certain chronic and debilitating diseases and their caregivers to 
possess up to 2.5 ounces of the otherwise illegal substance. They may 
also have up to 12 plants, if they have a recommendation from a 
medical doctor and obtain certification from the state health department.

If he can get the bill out of committee, Slater said he has rounded 
up enough votes to get it passed on the House floor and sent to the Senate.

McNamara told reporters after the hearing that "I am looking at it 
much more favorably than I looked at it last year; the questions I 
had have been answered." But when asked if the bill would get a vote 
in committee, he answered, "I don't know at this point in time. There 
are 14 members on the committee; we will have discussions on it. I 
will poll the committee and see if there is support for it this year."

The committee took a routine vote to hold the bill on Wednesday.

Jesse Stout is executive director of the Rhode Island Patient 
Advocacy Coalition, a pro-medical marijuana group.

He said creation of the compassion centers "would solve the supply 
problem we have with medical marijuana by taking it away from the 
black market altogether. The Department of Health would simply 
license a non-profit compassion center to grow and distribute 
marijuana for patients."

Stout said the centers would have to meet strict requirements for 
record-keeping and security.

He produced statistics showing there are currently 602 registered 
medical marijuana patients spread throughout the state and 504 
caregivers. The patients have been certified by 229 different physicians.

According to health department numbers distributed by Stout there are 
36 patients in Pawtucket, 23 in Woonsocket, 12 in Cumberland, 10 in 
Lincoln, 7 in North Smithfield, 9 in Burrillville, 7 in Glocester, 19 
in West Warwick and 29 in Coventry.

Committee members expressed surprise when witnesses said they use up 
to an ounce of the drug a week and that an ounce of marijuana on the 
street can cost $400 to $500.

They said they were concerned about the safety of the often-fragile 
patients once they obtain the drug and leave the compassion centers, 
but the legislation calls for security measures in and around the facilities.

A compassion center is defined in the legislation as "a 
not-for-profit entity ... that acquires, possesses, cultivates, 
manufactures, delivers, transfers, transports, supplies or dispenses 
marijuana, or related supplies and educational materials to 
registered qualifying patients and their registered primary caregivers."

More than a dozen people testified in favor of the bill during a 
hearing that lasted more than an hour Wednesday. Unlike last year, 
nobody spoke against passage of the measure, including 
representatives of law enforcement.

Several witnesses pointed to a recent statement by new U.S. Attorney 
General Eric Holder that, as a matter of policy, federal agents would 
no longer raid medical marijuana facilities or dispensaries.

A card from the health department protects patients and caregivers 
from arrest for possessing specified amounts of marijuana, but they 
are on their own to find and purchase the drug from street dealers.

Dr. David Lewis, professor emeritus at Brown University in medicine 
and community health, told the panel that establishing a compassion 
center "would be a terrific move for Rhode Island at this point" 
because it would add "an element of safety.

"There is no logic to deny this to people who are suffering," Lewis 
said. "I can't see why you wouldn't do it." He said Rhode Island "has 
taken a leadership role" on this issue.

"I think it is more or less settled by the National Academy of 
Science that the use of medical marijuana works for a whole number of 
conditions," he added. As for concern that medical marijuana use 
would lead to an increase in the use of other drugs, Lewis said, 
"there was never any evidence for that."

Dr. Todd Handel, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation 
who has recommended medical marijuana to some of his patients, told 
the panel, "I can't tell patients how to use it, how much to use or 
where to get it. I can't send them to Walgreens or CVS; I can only 
tell them it is available on the street."

Handel echoed several witnesses who gave first-hand testimony saying 
that the use of marijuana allowed patients to reduce or eliminate the 
use of opiate painkillers for their various conditions.

But patients say obtaining their medicine can be dangerous.

"None of you have ever had to face the barrel of a gun in an attempt 
to get medication," said George DesRoches of Warwick. "I have, on 
seven occasions. I have also been robbed; once blatantly where all my 
medications, savings and marijuana were stolen, leaving me almost 
destitute for two months."

Polly Reynolds, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, said "the one 
thing that helps me more than anything else I have been given is marijuana."

One problem, she said, is "you never know what the marijuana you are 
buying is composed of. I would love to be getting something that is 
stamped, labeled, consistent and available openly. I think compassion 
centers are a wonderful idea."

An identical Senate bill was also heard Wednesday by the Senate 
Health and Human Services Committee. 
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