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Medical marijuana bill opponents warn against legalization

March 18, 2004
Tobin A. Coleman
The Weekly

Legalizing medical use of marijuana is a "smokescreen" for backdoor efforts to legalize pot for everyday use, claim opponents of a state House bill to allow marijuana for medical purposes.

"It is the wrong direction and the wrong message, and I will work very, very vigorously to oppose this on the floor of the House, said Republican state Rep. Antonietta "Toni" Boucher, who represents Wilton and eastern Norwalk.

Lower Fairfield County opponents of legalization spearheaded a state Capitol news conference yesterday decrying Monday's passage by the Judiciary Committee of a bill that would allow doctors to certify certain patients to use marijuana.

Speakers included a Norwalk High School student, a Norwalk couple who lost their son to a drug overdose, state representatives from Norwalk, Greenwich and Durham, and representatives of organizations opposed to the bill.

The bill, approved 24-25 in committee, would allow doctors to give a patient a certificate saying he or she needs marijuana for medical reasons. Patients or their caregivers would be permitted to grow up to five plants to use for medical purposes only, to be used in a private setting.

Proponents have said the drug can relieve pain, relieve nausea from chemotherapy, treat glaucoma, slow some of the wasting associated with AIDS and help patients with multiple sclerosis.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. James Abrams, D-Meriden, said the measure is not meant to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Its purpose is to keep sick people and their doctors out of jail, he said.

Connecticut passed a bill allowing medical marijuana use in 1981. But because marijuana possession and distribution is against federal law, no prescriptions have been issued in Connecticut. Doctors fear they will be brought up on charges, Abrams said.

When a similar measure was defeated in the House after 212 hours of floor debate last year, the House fell silent as state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, related the story of her late husband's battle with terminal bone cancer. An operation to remove a tumor left him a paraplegic. Chemotherapy made him nauseated. A doctor recommended marijuana for relief.

"It worked wonders. And it gave him back a quality of life," Bacchiochi said.

But yesterday, opponents said passing the bill would be the first step on a slippery slope leading to the legalization of marijuana and a mixed message to young people about drug use.

"While the majority of abuse consists of alcohol and tobacco, marijuana still plays a dangerous role," said Maxwell Barrand, 15, a sophomore at Norwalk High School. "On a daily basis, I see fellow students with drugs or paraphernalia, even boasting to one another, even in the middle of class, about their new pipe. All this goes on in the classroom despite the fact that marijuana is illegal."

Maxwell said if the bill is passed, "marijuana will become justified in their minds, and all hesitation to use it will end."

Ginger and Larry Katz of Norwalk, co-founders of the anti-drug organization The Courage to Speak, said their son, Ian, who died of a heroin overdose in 1996, began his drug use "with a little pot -- a sip of beer and a little weed." Passing the bill would suggest to young people that marijuana use is OK, leading to use of stronger drugs, they said.

State Rep. Claudia "Dolly" Powers, R-Greenwich, said proponents of legalization have not seriously looked at alternatives such as Marinol, a drug that contains the active ingredients of marijuana in a medically approved pill form.

"We don't need to do this," Powers said. "There are other ways to handle this, and I will continue to vote in the negative."

State Rep. Robert Duff, D-Norwalk, and Westport Republican state Sen. Judith Freedman, who represents eastern New Canaan, Wilton and other Fairfield County towns, could not attend the news conference but voiced their opposition to the bill.

"I think there are some very bad things in the bill," Freedman said in a telephone interview. "It lets them grow their own marijuana. I think that's a very bad message to send to students right now."

Duff said in an interview, "Nobody ever starts by being a heroin addict, everyone always starts at marijuana. What message do we send to young people about (illegal) drugs? If you do it for medical purposes it's OK?"

Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have laws protecting patients who use medical marijuana on the recommendation of their doctor, according to A Better Way Foundation, a New Haven-based group that is lobbying in favor of the bill.

    State Rep. Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the proposal has practical problems, regardless of one's belief about whether marijuana is effective in relieving symptoms other drugs cannot.

"It is against state and federal law to get that first seed," Cafero said, referring to the bill's language that says the source of the marijuana would be home cultivation. "So we are saying, in order to avail yourself of this law, you have to break the law."

The bill is on the House calendar and is likely to be referred to the Public Health Committee.

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