Advocates of the medicinal use of marijuana won and lost Wednesday in the state House, providing a lesson in the quirks of lawmaking.
After two hours of debate, the House voted 75-71 to make it easier for the seriously ill to use marijuana under state law. This was a big victory because a similar bill fell a dozen votes shy of passage last year, the first time advocates of medical marijuana use got a floor vote in three years of trying.
The supporters of medicinal marijuana did not have long to celebrate the victory, though.
A Republican opponent of the legislation raised a question of parliamentary procedure that resulted in the bill being sent to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
Its advocates believe the committee referral essentially scuttled the medical marijuana bill because the 2004 session ends in less than a week next Wednesday.
Rep. James W. Abrams, D-Meriden, a chief sponsor of the legislation, said he does not expect the marijuana bill to get out of the finance committee.
However, the committee is meeting this morning, and it is possible that the legislation will make its way back on the House calendar. Even if that happens, there are no guarantees that the bill will come to the floor again. Majority leaders might be reluctant to call the measure if they believe there will be a lengthy debate.
The medical marijuana bill made it through the Judiciary, Appropriations and Public Health committees.
Abrams said the House vote Wednesday greatly encouraged advocates of the medicinal use of marijuana. He said now they know a majority of the 151 members support the legislation.
Four years ago, Abrams was unable to get a public hearing for the first bill that he introduced to make it easier for the seriously ill to use marijuana medicinally.
The victory in the House Wednesday was hard won. "It was house to house combat," Abrams said.
Opponents of the legislation argued that medical arguments were really a cover for the legalization of marijuana, an allegation Abrams and other supporters denied.
"Frankly, if we want to debate if marijuana should be legalized, we should debate it directly," said Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, the ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
"We should not try to go around it or dance around it. We should deal with it directly," said Rep. John Wayne Fox, D-Stamford.
Opponents of the legislation also questioned the medicinal value of marijuana. They argued smoking marijuana is unhealthy, and it is also unnecessary.
Rep. Lenny T. Winkler, R-Groton, an emergency room nurse, disputed the argument that smoked marijuana can be more effective than other drugs in relieving effects associated with chemotherapy.
"There are other drugs out there to deal with the nausea and the vomiting that are currently on the market that do an excellent job, and not to mention the other drugs that will be coming out in the future," Winkler said.
Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Stafford Springs, the other chief co-sponsor the bill, said prescription drugs do not work for all patients, including Marinol, a prescription medication that uses the active ingredient in marijuana.
"There is abundant scientific evidence that supports the position that marijuana is a safe and effective medicine for some people," she said.
For a second year, Bacchiochi told House colleagues of how she and her family obtained marijuana for her late husband as he grappled with terminal bone cancer. "I told you last year he tried every single drug the doctors could give to him, including Marinol. With respect to my colleagues who are very insistent that there are enough drugs on the market that work, I beg to differ."
She also spoke of the fear she went through buying marijuana illegally for her husband.
"It is my hope today there will be enough of us to change the policy in the state of Connecticut that prosecutes sick and dying people for trying to get just a little bit of relief," Bacchiochi said.
A 1981 state law allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat nausea associated with chemotherapy and the eye pressure associated with glaucoma. The problem is federal law bans doctors' prescribing marijuana.
The legislation that the House approved Wednesday would not require a prescription. Instead, the bill would require patients and primary caregivers to obtain certificates from a doctor and the state departments of Agriculture and Consumer Protection in order to legally grow, possess and use marijuana.
It limits patients and caregivers to growing five marijuana plants and possessing no more than one ounce of marijuana. It states the marijuana must be grown in a secured indoor location, and it also restricts where and when patients may smoke marijuana.
The bill seeks to protect patients, caretakers and doctors from civil or criminal punishment under state law. The legislation would not automatically prevent arrests, prosecutions or convictions on marijuana charges. Instead, it allows patients and caregivers to offer a legal defense of medical necessity.
The legislation would also expand the number of illness for which patients
may qualify for certificates to use marijuana, including multiple sclerosis,
Crohn's disease, the wasting syndrome Cachexia, epilepsy and severe pain,
nausea or muscle spasms.
Copyright © 2004, The Record-Journal