May 22, 2003
By Tobin A. Coleman
A move to legalize marijuana for medical use was defeated yesterday in the state House of Representatives, 79-64.
Sponsor state Rep. James Abrams, D-Meriden, said the so-called "medical marijuana" bill would have been the most restrictive in the nation.
"This bill is not an effort to legalize, it is not an effort to decriminalize marijuana," Abrams said at the outset of 2 1/2 hours of debate on the bill. "It is an attempt to keep sick people out of jail."
Abrams has been championing the proposal since a constituent told him four years ago of having to buy marijuana illegally for her son to help relieve his symptoms of nausea from chemotherapy when other drugs didn't work.
Proponents said the drug can relieve pain, nausea from chemotherapy, treat glaucoma, slow some of the wasting associated with AIDS and help patients with multiple sclerosis. Abrams designed the legislation after a similar law in place in Hawaii.
After the vote, Abrams said he was not surprised by the bill's failure. Earlier attempts had never made it to the floor of the House.
"I was very happy to get a vote," Abrams said. "I'm a Red Sox fan, so it's always, 'Wait till next year.' "
Under the bill's main provision, doctors would have given patients with a debilitating disease a certificate, saying they need marijuana for medical reasons. Doctors would have been required to explore other medicines and deemed them ineffective. Patients, and if necessary their primary care giver, would file the certificate with the state Department of Public Safety.
It also would have prohibited law enforcement officers from arresting anyone simply for being present or in the vicinity when marijuana is being used lawfully for medical purposes.
Buying marijuana would still have been illegal, but patients and their caregivers could grow it. The question of how seeds could be acquired legally was one that Abrams said he never found a good solution for.
Most opponents said that because federal law still makes possession of marijuana illegal, they were uncomfortable passing a law that would fly in the face of the federal law enforcement.
As long as the federal prohibition is in place, "I'd (have to) go out on the corner with little 'Johnny Junkie' to obtain the drug," said state Rep. John Wayne Fox, D-Stamford, who voted against the bill but said people should have access to the drug legally.
"We have to acknowledge the sympathy we have for people who suffer from these diseases," Fox said.
One of the chief and most vocal opponents was state Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk. Cafero brought up points he raised when the bill was debated in the Judiciary Committee, including his concerns that college students or others could find ways to get around the law and begin sharing marijuana in dorm rooms under the guise of using it for medical reasons.
He also asked whether migraine headaches or pain from menstrual cramps could be considered debilitating enough to be prescribed marijuana.
"The bill as written would have allowed a lot of unintended consequences," Cafero said in an interview.
Cafero said he supports sick people being able to get marijuana to ease their suffering, but only if the federal prohibition on using the drug for medical reasons is repealed.
Neither the debate nor the final vote fell along party lines. Forty-three Democrats voted against the bill, along with 36 Republicans. Democrats control the House 94-57.
Some of the debate was poignant. The House fell silent as state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, related the story of her late husband who contracted terminal bone cancer. An operation to remove a tumor left him a paraplegic. Chemotherapy made him nauseous.
"Eventually, after many months of chemotherapy, a courageous doctor took us aside and he told us that my husband needed to try marijuana," Bacchiochi said. "The doctor was convinced that it would help, so some marijuana was obtained. And it was obtained at great legal risk to my family. But it worked. And it worked wonders. And it gave him back a quality of life. . . . I will always remember how my husband suffered. And I will always remember that if a Legislature had passed a bill like this, he would have suffered less."
The arguments, however, failed to sway those who opposed the bill.
"The lower the perception of harm for a drug, the more people use that drug," said Republican state Rep. Antonietta "Toni" Boucher, who represents Wilton and part of Norwalk. "The perception of harm from marijuana has been dropping off since the drive to legalize marijuana for medical use."
State Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said the bill "seems to be making an end run around the system we have for approving controlled substances."
Connecticut did pass a law allowing medical marijuana use in 1981. But because marijuana possession and distribution is against federal law, not a single prescription has been issued in Connecticut, Abrams said. Doctors are afraid they will be brought up on charges, he said.
Opponents reminded the House that at a public hearing on the bill, no oncologists, eye doctors or anyone representing hospices or those suffering from multiple sclerosis appeared.
Yesterday, proponents did circulate a list of 297 Connecticut physicians who support medical marijuana use.
Under the failed bill, patients suffering a debilitating illness, or their caregivers, would have been allowed to possess three mature marijuana plants, four immature plants and up to 3 ounces of the drug. The drug could not be sold or given to anyone else and it could only be consumed in private, for example, in someone's home.
People using the drug could still be prosecuted if a law enforcement
official believed they had overstepped the bounds of the certificate, or
were not actually using the drug to relieve discomfort. But the doctor's
certificate could be presented in court with legal standing as a defense.
It would be up to a judge or jury to weigh whether the medical need was
Copyright © 2003, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.