Pubdate: Sat, 16 Sep 2017
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2017 The Providence Journal Company
Author: Jennifer Bogdan


PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A federal anti-drug program has asked Rhode Island
- -- and more than two dozen other states where medical marijuana is
legal -- to turn over data about patients in the program.

The move has alarmed some who question why the federal government,
which has at times appeared to be antagonistic towards the drug, is
interested in the information.

The National Marijuana Initiative, an arm of the High Intensity Drug
Trafficking Area program, which reports to the White House, contacted
the Rhode Island Department of Health in August seeking data from 2012
to 2016 on the number of patients in the program, as well as patients'
age, gender and a breakdown of the medical conditions under which they

"The question is: What do they want to do with it," said JoAnne
Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy
Coalition. "It could be they don't even know yet, which is also a
source of concern. Up until now, the federal government has really
left us alone."

Medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2006 with the
number of patients growing rapidly. There are currently 18,427
patients, an increase of roughly 19 percent from one year ago. Roughly
64 percent of patients qualify because of severe, debilitating or
chronic pain.

Ed Shemelya, coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, said
the program is not looking for any personal information -- only raw
data -- from all states where marijuana is legal. The aim, he said, is
to look at whether marijuana use is more prevalent by the general
public in states where medical marijuana programs exist.

The data, which will eventually be published on the program's website,
is not being collected in an attempt to shape federal policy, Shemelya
said, adding there's "nothing sinister about it."

He said he couldn't provide a timeline for when data will be published
because it is dependent on when states respond. It's expected that not
all will provide the information.

Rhode Island has, said Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state
health department, who noted that such data is regularly requested and
provided here.

Data is easy to come by on other medical conditions, Shemelya said,
"but there's a hesitation on providing data with this particular drug."

In July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a letter to Washington
state officials referring to a report by the Northwest High Intensity
Drug Trafficking Area that he said "raises serious questions about the
efficacy of marijuana 'regulatory structures'" in the state. Among the
issues he noted: one in five 10th graders in Washington state (where
both medical and recreational marijuana is legal) reported riding with
a driver who had used marijuana.

The National Marijuana Initiative was founded in 2003 as part of the
High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program funded by the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy. On its website, the initiative
says its mission is to educate the public and policymakers "because
every citizen deserves the truth about the health risks, public safety
implications, and environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation and

In Rhode Island, the push for recreational marijuana legalization
heated up this year after Massachusetts residents voted to legalize
marijuana in the Bay State. The Rhode Island legalization bill
eventually fizzled, and lawmakers instead created a study commission
that will report its recommendations to the General Assembly in March

Matt Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy
Project, said the move by the National Marijuana Initiative to collect
data doesn't concern him.

"It would be very politically unpopular for the Trump administration
to meddle in marijuana policies established at the state level,"
Schweich said. "Elected officials in Rhode Island should be less
concerned with the prospect of federal interference and more concerned
with the fact that Rhode Island will soon be senselessly forfeiting
tens of millions of dollars of tax revenue to Massachusetts starting
next July when the first stores will open in the Bay State."

Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said
the House expects to announce its appointees to the study commission
next week. The commission is expected to begin meeting in October.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt