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Connecticut mulls medical marijuana bill similar to Maine law

May 5th, 2003
By Susan Haigh
Associated Press
Hartford, Conn.

For the past two years a bill to fully legalize the medical use of marijuana has been snuffed out in the early days of the legislative session.

But this year the proposal, which is similar to Maine law, finds itself sitting on the House of Representatives calendar, waiting for a possible floor vote.

''I'm more shocked than anybody to get it through the committee process,'' joked Rep. James Abrams, D-Meriden, the main proponent of the legislation.

Abrams acknowledges he isn't sure whether the bill will be called up for a vote in the House. But he said there appears to be a fair amount of bipartisan support for the bill, which actually builds upon Connecticut's existing medical marijuana law passed in 1981.

''If we get a vote, it will be close. It's not going to pass by a wide margin,'' Abrams said. ''It's something that takes some education.''

A Better Way Foundation, a New Haven-based nonprofit group that supports a shift in Connecticut's drug policy from a public safety issue to a public health issue, has taken on that role.

The group, which hired a lobbying firm and started an e-mail campaign, has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to unveil a list of more than 200 medical doctors across the state who've sent postcards saying they back medical marijuana.

Robert Rooks, the foundation's executive director, said the group wants to show lawmakers there is support for the bill within the medical community as well as the general public.

''So many people say they support it, but because of the powers that be and who they work for, they can't come out and support it,'' Rooks said. ''It's frustrating.''

In 1981 Connecticut was one of the first states in the nation to pass a medical marijuana law. Under that law, a doctor is allowed to prescribe the illegal drug to relieve nausea associated with chemotherapy and eye pressure from glaucoma.

But the law is unworkable because, under federal law, any physician who prescribes marijuana can be sent to prison and risks having their medical license revoked, Abrams said. That's why a single prescription for marijuana has not been issued since the law passed.

Abrams said former state Rep. John G. Rowland, now the Republican governor, and newcomer Moira Lyons, now the Democratic House speaker, both voted for the 1981 bill.

The new proposal would allow a doctor to provide a written certification that would qualify a patient to use marijuana for medical purposes. The patient would be able to grow up to three plants for personal use and could use that certificate as a legal defense for having the illegal substance.

It would be up to the patient to possess the marijuana seeds.

The proposal is similar to laws on the books in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Maine. According to A Better Way Foundation, nine states have ''workable'' medical marijuana laws. There are 35 states, including Connecticut, that have passed legislation recognizing the drug's medicinal value.

The new law would also expand the illnesses that could be treated with medical marijuana. They would include multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, cachexia (a wasting syndrome typically associated with AIDS), epilepsy, and severe pain and nausea or severe persistent muscle spasms.

Advocates claim that marijuana is more effective than prescribed drugs in relieving pain and has fewer side effects.

But not all legislators believe there has been outcry for fully legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. During a debate in the legislature's Judiciary Committee in March, state Rep. John Wayne Fox, D-Stamford, noted that no physicians, including oncologists, testified in favor of the legislation. He said the only doctor who voiced support for the bill was an evolutionary biologist from Yale University.

''That says something to me, folks, it really does,'' Fox said. ''I don't think, with all due respect, there's evidence to justify it.''

Other lawmakers said they worry about the state essentially condoning an illegal substance one that some consider ''a gateway drug'' that can lead to use of cocaine or heroin.

Jim Battaglio, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Medical Society, said the state group follows the American Medical Association on the issue. The AMA has called for more studies of marijuana for patients and recommends that authorities continue to classify marijuana as a controlled substance pending the outcome of studies.

The national doctors' group also called on the National Institutes of Health to research the medical utility of marijuana and develop a smoke-free, inhaled delivery system.

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