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Lawmakers debate medical marijuana use

May 5, 2004
Jack P. Terceno and Jessica Lyon
The Hamden Journal

The House of Representatives voted on a medical marijuana bill that would allow residents to grow marijuana in their homes for personal use, provided they receive a doctor's prescription for the drug.

The bill, which already has won approval from the Judiciary, Appropriations and Public Health committees ¾ also passed the House and was sent to the Finance Committee for further review.

People suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and other terminal illnesses sometimes use marijuana to ease pain, control nausea and increase appetite.

The medical marijuana bill would make it legal for such patients to possess and cultivate up to five plants in their home. Purchasing or selling the drug would remain illegal, even for the patients.

State Rep. James Abrams (D-Meriden) co-sponsored the bill and has fought to legalize medical marijuana for the last five years. Last year, his bill failed on the House floor by 12 votes.

Opponents of the bill fear it is a first step in legalizing marijuana altogether. Abrams said that is not his intention.

"I'm not in favor of legalizing marijuana," he said, which is why his bill does not legalize purchasing the drug. "We'd be legalizing behavior we don't want to legalize."

Robert Rooks is executive director of the non-profit organization A Better Way, a group dedicated to reviewing drug policies in Connecticut. Rooks joined Abrams' effort two years ago.

"There are a large contingent of folks in Connecticut that are using marijuana for medical purposes," Rooks said. "They should no longer have to worry about potential repercussions from state government."

Abrams said the existing use of marijuana by terminally ill patients allowed him to avoid the "first seed" issue in his bill - the question of where patients would obtain marijuana. He and Rooks said those who need it already have it.

"We'll really be legalizing what is ongoing behavior," he said.

A gateway drug

Opponents to legalizing medical marijuana said marijuana is a "gateway" drug that often leads to the use of cocaine and heroin.

The federal government categorizes marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it cannot be sold by prescription. Cocaine, by comparison, is a schedule 2 drug that doctors can prescribe.

Ginger Katz, a Norwalk woman whose son Ian died of a drug overdose, formed the Courage to Speak Foundation and travels the country warning children of the dangers of drug use.

She said she opposes medical marijuana legislation because it will suggest to children that smoking marijuana is okay.

"Marijuana isn't medicine - it's that simple," Katz said. "Medical marijuana is the beginning of legalizing it. The message to children is really loud and clear...It definitely sends a message to kids that it's okay to use."

Katz said there are several existing drugs already available by prescription that serve the same purpose as marijuana in relieving symptoms.

State Rep. Al Adinolfi (R-Cheshire) said he voted against the bill.

"It is too difficult to control and too easy to abuse," he said. "I sympathize with it, but there are plenty of drugs available that address the same issues."

Trumbull state Rep. T.R. Rowe (R-134) said the American Medical Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the American Cancer Society and other medical groups have said there is no medical benefit to smoking marijuana.

Marijuana derivatives are available in pill and liquid form to help patients combat nausea and increase their appetite.

According to Abrams and Rooks, however, patients who smoke marijuana told them that the derivative medicines do not work as well.

Abrams said the lack of scientific evidence supporting those claims is not enough to ignore them.

"One reason there's no scientific evidence is that the government won't fund any studies," he said. "There is tons of anecdotal evidence."

Rooks said he was troubled by efforts to remove any potential medicine from terminally ill patients.

"There are other drugs that do work," he said. "But we would like marijuana to be one of the options."

State Rep. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) said he supports the bill, which he said provides protection for those suffering the effects of chemotherapy.

"People who think this is a slippery slope to legalizing drugs have it wrong," he said. "We should not refuse to choose the right thing now in order to avoid something going wrong down the road. I think that is a pretty negative way to pass laws."

State Rep. Jack Stone (R-123) disagrees with making marijuana an option. He already voted against the bill.

A ranking member of the Public Safety Committee, Stone said he supports law enforcement officials who worry the medical marijuana bill will lead to increased marijuana use among non-patients.

"The law enforcement community is strongly opposed to the bill," Stone said. "The big issue is how do they control it, and how do they make sure it's being used for what it was intended."

Copyright © 2004, The Hamden Journal