March 2, 2002
By DAVID MACE Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — A House committee has approved a bill that would decriminalize growing, possessing and using marijuana for patients suffering from certain medical conditions if they obtain a doctor’s note.
By a 5-4 vote, the House Judiciary Committee Friday passed H645, which allows marijuana use under strictly regulated conditions.
“This is a tremendous victory for patients suffering from serious illnesses,” said Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, the bill’s chief supporter. “We’re one step closer to ensuring that patients won’t face arrest and imprisonment for the simple act of taking their medicine.”
The committee approved the bill after making several changes designed to soften resistance to the bill by law enforcement. Rep. Margaret Flory, R-Pittsford, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said she was moved by testimony from patients who said using marijuana had helped them.
“I did have mixed feelings about it,” she said. “My concern was to make sure that if the bill were passed there were enough restrictions on it that it was not seen as an attempt to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.”
The bill would allow the possession of three mature marijuana plants, four immature plants, and up to 3 ounces of processed marijuana, and anyone growing it would have to do so indoors and in a locked facility.
It would only be for use in treating symptoms associated with HIV or AIDS, cancer; multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, wasting syndrome, severe pain, nausea or muscle spasms, and epilepsy.
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.
A person who tried to fraudulently tell police they had a medical exemption for marijuana use could be fined $500, and other violations of the law could bring up to two years and a day in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Billy Rogers, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, DC-based group that advocates for decriminalization of marijuana, particularly for medical use, hailed the bill as “historic.”
“It would be, if passed, the most strict medical marijuana law on the books in the country,” he said.
While Flory said she was confident that the bill protected patients without giving recreational users an opening, others weren’t sure.
Rep. Carl Haas, R-Rutland, said he felt some of the proponents who testified were somewhat disingenuous.
Haas said he was concerned that marijuana had not gone through the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process, including clinical trials, and noted that marijuana would still be illegal under federal law.
And he questioned whether such a law was even needed.
“Not one person who came in to testify in front of us ... has ever heard of a person who’s in need of marijuana for medical usage, and could not get it ... or who’s ever been arrested,” Haas said. “If the problem doesn’t exist, why are we making a law?”
Steve McQueen, Winooski’s police chief and legislative representative of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, made it clear his organization would continue to oppose any attempt to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use but wouldn’t work against this bill.
“It is not our place to say whether marijuana has ... medicinal purposes, but to make sure there was a clear set of guidelines that are reasonably enforceable and would accomplish what they intended to do if the Legislature intends to pass this,” McQueen said.
Advocates for the bill applauded its passage.
“We’re very happy with the bill that came out of the committee today,” said Virginia Renfrew, a lobbyist for the HIV Positive Public Policy Project. “And the fact that the full House will have an opportunity to vote on this issue.”
That vote wasn’t guaranteed, however. Flory said there could be a motion to send the bill to the House Health and Welfare Committee.
“I don’t know if (they) will decide
they want the bill,” she said. “If they do, it’s the body’s decision whether
to send it there.”
© 2001 Rutland Herald and Times Argus