April 25, 2002
By DAVID MACE Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee Thursday unanimously endorsed a bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession and use for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses, but prospects for further action on the bill appeared dim.
By a 5-0 vote the committee sent the bill back to the full Senate after making a few changes. But committee Chairwoman Sen. Nancy Chard, D-Windham, made it clear to members that theirs wasn’t the final word.
“This bill must go to the Judiciary Committee because there’s a lot of law enforcement (provisions) in it,” she said. “(Judiciary Committee Chair-man) Sen. (Richard) Sears (D-Bennington) has made it clear that it’s unlikely he’ll have time to take testimony ... and act on it.”
Sen. John Campbell, D-Wind-sor, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he himself had questions he still wanted answered.
“I’m going to vote yes (on the bill) because I think compassion and common sense say you have to,” he said. “My concern is the dispensing of marijuana. The procurement is fraught with problems.”
Campbell said he wished a nonprofit group or state agency could be designated to handle distributing marijuana to qualified patients.
The bill allows seriously ill people to use marijuana to alleviate pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
A patient or designated caregiver can possess up to three mature plants, four immature plants and 3 ounces of marijuana, and the bill allows them to grow the plant if they do it in a secure, indoor location.
It would require a doctor’s certification that the patient suffered from one of these conditions and that certification would be sent to the Department of Public Safety. The bill would not permit use in most public places or at work unless an employer consented, and would not protect users from prosecution under federal law.
On Thursday the committee tightened some of the language, dropping Crohn’s disease and glaucoma from the list of conditions that would qualify for using medical marijuana.
But the bill, which passed the Vermont House with bipartisan support, faces two huge obstacles. The first is time; the second is Gov. Howard Dean.
Dean is a staunch opponent of medical marijuana, which he’s has characterized as a backdoor effort to legalize pot, and as the Democratic governor explores a possible presidential run that stance is unlikely to change.
But because the gay community — which supports medical marijuana for its use by AIDS patients — is a group that Dean has won points with for signing the landmark civil unions bill granting same-sex couples marriage rights, he would prefer not to be forced to veto such a bill.
Sears said he had spoken with Dean briefly on the issue but that Dean had not pressured him to avoid action on the bill.
He said the biggest problem was the late hour that the bill had arrived at.
“We’re going to do the best we can to take a look at the bill, but we are extremely limited on time to look at any bills,” Sears said, noting that his committee was being swamped with other bills.
He said that he and others also had legitimate concerns they wanted to address, meaning the measure couldn’t get a cursory review.
“I’m empathetic to the needs of people who are suffering,” Sears said. “And I would hope that ... prosecutors would be sympathetic as well.”
But he noted that many of the troubled young people he worked with as director of a youth program suffered from substance abuse problems.
“I don’t want to send the message to them that we’re making one more drug legal,” Sears said.
Even if the bill didn’t pass this year, he said, its progress would help it when the issue was raised again.
Advocates for the bill did their best to be optimistic.
“For the HIV community, for those who use medicinal marijuana, this is great,” said Virginia Renfrew, a lobbyist representing the HIV Positive Public Policy Project. “The fact that the Senate Health and Welfare Committee recognized the needs of these people is wonderful.”
“Hopefully the Senate Judiciary Committee will take this up,” she added. “So people who are chronically ill will no longer have to break the law to get their medicine.”