HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Senate Judiciary Committee Hears Medical Marijuana
Pubdate: Wed, 06 Apr 2005
Source: Brown Daily Herald, The (Brown, RI Edu)
Copyright: 2005 The Brown Daily Herald
Author: Mary-Catherine Lader
Cited: American Civil Liberties Union ( )
Cited: RIPAC ( )
Cited: Students for Sensible Drug Policy ( )
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


Chronically ill Rhode Islanders, medical experts and advocates
testified in favor of the Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act before
the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon at the State House.
Although State Sen. Leo Blais, R, expressed animated opposition to the
bill early into the proceedings, there were no witnesses testifying
against the measure.

If passed, the bill will allow chronically ill individuals and their
caregivers to acquire and cultivate marijuana with protection from
prosecution and arrest. Qualifying medical conditions include cancer,
multiple sclerosis, AIDS and illnesses that cause severe symptoms
alleviated by marijuana use, such as nausea or seizures. Ten states
have passed similar measures, most through voter initiatives, but
medical use of the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

"We believe this bill is about compassion for those with serious
illness and those on the precipice of dying," said the bill's lead
sponsor, Sen. Rhoda Perry P'91, a Democrat who represents College Hill
and serves on the judiciary committee. The committee's chair, Sen.
Michael McCaffrey, D, and two of its other members, Democratic
Senators Michael Damiani and Joseph Polisena, are co-sponsors - a
"very rare" combination, Polisena said.

Despite such pre-existing support, legislators questioned each witness
and raised concerns about whether the bill's language might allow for
abuse of the drug. Each of the sponsors said at least once that they
opposed the legalization of marijuana in general, and Polisena said he
had "second thoughts" about the issue. "I need to be thoroughly
convinced today," he said as the hearings began.

Rhonda O'Donnell, a Warwick native diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
nearly 11 years ago, told the committee that although she had not used
marijuana to alleviate pain, she knew the substance would make a
difference in her own daily life. "I urge you to avoid playing
politics with medicine and pass this bill today," O'Donnell said.

After O'Donnell's testimony, Blais voiced opposition to the measure in
a speech that Perry later said was "nasty, hostile and partisan politics."

"The holes in this legislation are large enough to drive a tank
through," Blais said. "Anyone with a straight face who has a back
spasm can qualify for medical marijuana (if the bill is passed)."

As a pharmacist, Blais said he believed there was "no accepted medical
value in any study" that demonstrated marijuana was a uniquely useful
substance. "We are a society of laws, and we are fooling ourselves and
our constituents if we pretend it is OK to violate federal law because
of ... compassion," he said, and left the hearing.

After Blais' departure, two medical professionals and a neuroscience
professor testified to marijuana's medical value. A breast cancer
survivor and Tourette's syndrome sufferer also testified to the relief
marijuana would have for their respective conditions.

Dr. David Lewis, founder of Brown's Center for Alcohol and Addiction
Studies and a current professor of medicine, said that some medical
organizations oppose medical marijuana because of the unlikelihood of
FDA approval and danger of smoking in general, but allowing it "really
makes sense for patients."

Lewis dismissed Polisena's concerns that by not definitively listing
the conditions eligible for legal marijuana use, the bill would allow
increased use of the drug through unwarranted prescriptions. "Medical
judgment should not be replaced by detailed language," Lewis said.

J. Michael Walker, formerly chair of the psychology department at
Brown and currently a professor at the University of Indiana, said his
research into cannabinoids "shows clearly that these compounds behave
like morphine."

"Any suggestion these compounds are just making people high is
absolutely incorrect," Walker said.

The Director of AIDS Project R.I., Chris Butler, and the American
Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island Director also testified.

Nathaniel Lepp '06, who had helped coordinate the witnesses' testimony
as executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition,
said he was pleased with the hearing's outcome. "I think it will work
out," Lepp said.

Lepp said he was both unfazed and unsurprised by Blais' vocal
opposition, particularly given the senator's occupation. "He sells
pills to people for a living," Lepp said, adding that legalized
medical use of marijuana would affect sales of pain medication.

If passed by the judiciary committee, the bill will face a floor vote
in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, 50 out of 75
legislators have expressed support for an identical bill sponsored by
Democratic Rep. Tom Slater. Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 has made no
statement on the matter. Though the bill can pass without his
signature and override a veto with three-fifths of the votes of all
those present, Lepp identified the governor's office as RIPAC's next
major focus.

In an effort to communicate citizen support for the bill, RIPAC will
be canvassing and distributing postcards, urging voters to call or
mail the governor's office and express support for the measure.

Trevor Stutz '07, president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy,
estimated that 15 SSDP supporters had attended the hearings from the
University of Rhode Island and Brown. "Especially with the stigma that
still lingers around a drug policy group, having tons of people show
up at a three-hour Senate hearing and sit there the whole time is
substantial," Stutz said.

As the hearing drew to a close, Damiani explained his support for the
bill despite his previous opposition to it and career as a police
officer. "No one can accuse me of being soft on drugs. ... (But) in
the past couple years I've watched a lot of people die from cancer,"
Damiani said. He added that there were a few "bugs" in the legislation
but expressed confidence that they would be worked out.

"As long as smoking grass makes people who probably aren't going to be
around much longer feel better, it's a halfway decent idea to me,"
Damiani said. 
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