By Michael Costanza
Day Staff Writer
A proposal to let doctors recommend marijuana for chronically ill patients moved through the legislature's Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, despite objections from lawmakers worried about legalizing medical use of the drug.
The bill passed narrowly, 21-18, and will now move to the full House of Representatives, which is expected to send the bill back to the Public Health Committee.
Connecticut law has allowed doctors since 1981 to prescribe marijuana for medical use, but no doctor has ever prescribed the drug in the state in the last 22 years for fear of federal prosecution. Doctors could lose their licenses and serve time in prison. The new proposal would let doctors write certificates or recommendations, rather than prescriptions, to avoid the threat of arrest.
Each certificate would describe the patient's medical need for marijuana and would allow the patient or caregiver to grow small amounts of the plant.
Doctors could issue certificates to patients who suffer from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy or Crohn's disease. Health experts and advocates of legalizing marijuana have pointed to the drug's effectiveness in controlling pain and nausea and stimulating appetite.
A patient who grows marijuana would remain vulnerable to federal prosecution, but could present a doctor's certificate to police or in court as a defense. “This just shifts the risk from the doctor to the patient,” said Rep. James Abrams, D-Meriden, the bill's sponsor.
Each patient could possess no more than three mature plants, three immature plants and one ounce of usable marijuana for each mature plant. Patients would be required to grow the plants indoors in a secure place, such as their home, and to smoke marijuana only on private property.
Obtaining marijuana plants and seeds in the first place would remain illegal, however, prompting some lawmakers to complain Wednesday that the state would be encouraging residents to break the law. “We're actually conspiring with people to keep doing what's illegal and just hoping that they don't go to jail,” said Rep. Konstantinos Diamantis, D-Bristol.
Others questioned the medical benefits of marijuana, calling the proposal a “cruel hoax.” Some noted that few doctors testified in support of the bill at a recent public hearing, and that advocacy groups for AIDS, cancer and other patients never voiced support.
“If you want to legalize marijuana, that's a separate issue,” said Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, “but to suggest it's an effort to improve treatment for these ailments isn't true and it isn't helpful.”
Rep. Lenny Winkler, R-Groton, a nurse, said she has wavered on the proposal but decided to vote against it. Sick patients should use prescription drugs that have the same benefits of marijuana, Winkler said.
Rep. Wade Hyslop Jr., D-New London, said he had pledged to vote to move the bill out of committee but that he might vote against it on the floor of the House.
If approved, the medical marijuana law would take effect Oct. 1. Doctors who issue certificates and their patients would be required to register with the Department of Public Safety. Each certificate would be valid for one year, and no patient could receive a certificate from more than one doctor.
Doctors could give certificates to patients under 18 only with written consent from parents or guardians, who would be required to supervise the child's use of the drug.
Gov. John G. Rowland opposes the proposal, his spokesman said Wednesday.
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