Pubdate: Fri, 02 Apr 2010
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2010 Times Argus
Author: Peter Hirschfeld
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


MONTPELIER -- A legislative effort to provide nearly  200 eligible 
Vermonters with safe and legal access to  medical marijuana ended 
this week when Senate leaders  scuttled the bill due to lack of 
support in the House.

The Senate legislation would have established up to  five so-called 
"compassion centers" at which patients  suffering from multiple 
sclerosis, cancer or other  pain-inducing conditions could have 
obtained their  doctor-approved cannabis.

While the bill got considerable attention this session  in a Senate 
committee room, it was "ordered to lie"  last week and almost 
certainly won't see a floor vote  this year.

"It became clear to us that the other body wasn't  interested in 
taking it up this year, so we ordered it  to lie," Senate President 
Peter Shumlin said Thursday.  "With such a tight timeline to get our 
work done, I  want to focus our attention on bills that both chambers 
are going to pass."

Proponents of the bill say Vermont's existing  medical-marijuana 
legislation does little to help many  of the 187 patients on the 
statewide registry. The 2004  law permits eligible residents to 
possess and grow  cannabis plants in limited quantities. But 
cultivating  the herb is no easy task, especially for seniors 
suffering from debilitating pain. And while  opiate-based painkillers 
are available at any local  pharmacy for patients with a doctor 
prescription,  medical-marijuana users must pay high prices for an 
uncertified product on a black market to which many are  unable even 
to gain access.

"It's inconsistent and illogical to have a state law  that allows 
people to use medical marijuana and then  ask them to go to a drug 
dealer to purchase the  medicine they need," Shumlin said. "We get 
calls in  this office from senior citizens who literally ask us  what 
a drug dealer looks like so they can try to fill  their prescription."

But opposition to the bill from virtually every  law-enforcement 
entity in the state convinced House  Speaker Shap Smith that the 
legislation isn't ready to  become law. While he said he supports the 
idea in  concept, he would prefer more universal buy-in.

"I don't think this particular effort has gotten all  the 
stakeholders together to allow them to reach some  common ground," 
Smith said. "I think it's a real issue,  and I think it does deserve 
attention, but we need more  time to resolve some of the differences."

Mark Tucci, a Manchester Center resident who has long  been in the 
forefront of medical-marijuana reform, said  the bill's death in the 
Statehouse isn't necessarily a  bad thing.

"It was a mercy killing," Tucci said Thursday. "It  wasn't the right 
bill for this state."

Tucci said attention drawn to the issue this year will  build 
momentum for a 2011 bill that would simplify the  dispensation 
process and obviate the need for retail  storefronts to which so many 
public-safety officials  objected.

Tucci said a delivery system, supplied by a discreet  growing 
operation and overseen by law enforcement and  health officials, 
would suffice for a state with a  relatively small client base.

"We don't need five dispensaries. We don't need four.  We barely need 
two," he said. "What we really need is  two spots in the state that 
grow, and you don't even  really need storefronts at all."

Tucci, who toured California's dispensaries over the  winter, said 
simple four-question surveys sent to  patients on the 
medical-marijuana registry would  determine how much marijuana -- and 
what strains --  would be needed. From there, he said, the state can 
craft a system to meet the need.

"You find out what the product is, find out what  consumption is 
going to be, grow that much and deliver  it," he said.

The plan though might not win over opponents to the  current 
legislation. Sen. Randy Brock, a member of the  Senate Committee on 
Government Operations, which took  witness testimony on the issue 
this year, said the  concept is fundamentally flawed. He said he 
cannot support any state-sanctioned distribution network for 
a  Schedule 1 narcotic.

"Dispensing marijuana is illegal, and having the state  operate 
dispensaries doesn't make it any less illegal  under federal law," 
Brock said. "You're simply  transferring criminality from an 
individual to an  organization."

Brock said he also worries that a state distribution  network would 
abet recreational use of the drug by  non-sanctioned users. He points 
to Colorado, where the  number of residents on the state's 
medical-marijuana  registry jumped from fewer than 2,000 before 
dispensaries were established to more than 60,000  after.

"The history of other states where dispensaries were  authorized is 
very problematic," he said.

Sen. Jeanette White, a Windham County Democrat and  chairwoman of the 
Senate Committee on Government  Operations, said she's disappointed 
the bill won't get  an up-or-down vote on the floor.

Still, the bill's lead sponsor and biggest legislative  cheerleader 
said she's optimistic that the issue will  gain more traction in the 
next biennium.

"I think we had a very tight bill, so I'm disappointed  we're not 
able to move further with it," she said. "But  I still think it's the 
right thing to do and will  continue to work to make it happen. It's 
not a dead  issue."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom