12th March, 2003 - 18:41
By Ross Sneyd,
Senators voted Wednesday to make Vermont the ninth state in the country to legalize using marijuana to treat pain and other symptoms of debilitating diseases.
A final vote on the initiative, which still could be amended, is scheduled for Thursday.
''It's come so close to being so totally stopped and then it gets a life of its own,'' said a smiling Debbie Ramsdell of Charlotte, who has been lobbying for the law since her husband Bob died of colon cancer.
The bill, which passed its preliminary vote 22-7, would permit people with terminal or chronic diseases who met a list of criteria to use marijuana to treat their pain, nausea, seizures or wasting syndrome.
''It is our belief that this bill is the right message,'' Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman James Leddy, D-Chittenden, attempting to refute critics who say legalizing medical use of marijuana sends the wrong message to children tempted by drugs. ''It is compassionate rather than punitive.''
The bill would contradict federal law, which prohibits possession or use of marijuana for any use. Advocates noted that 99 percent of marijuana cases were prosecuted in state courts and they said they doubted the U.S. Justice Department would start going after small cases of people using marijuana for medical purposes.
''Compassion dictates that we pass this bill and pass it today,'' said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor. ''I look to the federal government and I say, `Shame on you for not taking a look at this and doing something.'''
Ramsdell and other advocates have described how critically ill people have used marijuana to control their nausea and therefore continue eating. Others have said it controls their pain when traditional medicines have not.
But some senators nonetheless were worried about bucking the federal government. ''I was sworn in to uphold that law,'' said Sen. Julius Canns, R-Caledonia.
Leddy and other members of the Health and Welfare and Judiciary committees said they put a number of provisions in the bill to protect against abuse.
Marijuana would still be illegal for recreational use. ''The sale of marijuana is illegal; the possession of marijuana is illegal,'' said Sen. John Bloomer, R-Rutland. ''We've created an exemption from prosecution.''
To qualify for such an exemption, someone would have to be suffering from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV, AIDS of diseases that produce ''severe, persistent and intractable symptoms,'' such as nausea or pain.
They then would have to obtain a special card from the state indicating that they were using marijuana for medical purposes. They could possess no more than 2 ounces, three mature plants or four immature plants.
The marijuana would have to be kept under lock and key and patients could only grow marijuana indoors in a locked room.
Currently, Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have laws allowing the medical use of marijuana.
The Vermont bill, if it wins final approval Thursday, still needs to pass the House, where it faces an uncertain future.
And Gov. James Douglas repeated again that he didn't like the bill,
although he refused to say he'd veto it if it reached him. ''I'm not prepared
to support that,'' Douglas said.
© Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company