Two state lawmakers -- who are retired Providence police officers -- have introduced legislation to close what they see as loopholes in the state's medical-marijuana law that allowed a man with a long criminal record to obtain a marijuana-use card from the state Department of Health months after his latest arrest on drug charges.
The case, known as State of Rhode Island versus Orlando Martino, is headed to court again for a status conference on Thursday, with Martino's lawyer seeking a dismissal of all of the charges pending against him -- including a marijuana-possession charge from last August -- on the grounds that the same law that enabled him to obtain a medical-marijuana card insulates him from prosecution.
Representatives Joseph Almeida and John M. Carnevale say they support the state's effort to allow marijuana use by sick patients, but believe that the current law governing who can grow the drug and who can use it leaves room for abuse.
However well-intentioned the law named for the late Rep. Thomas Slater, the two Providence lawmakers said they believe it can be used as a "cover for illegal activities." They are not trying to bar anyone with a criminal record from obtaining a medical-marijuana card, and they are not seeking to remove from the law the so-called "affirmative defense" that allows anyone, with a doctor's backing, to "assert the medical purpose for using marijuana as a defense to any prosecution involving marijuana."
The attorney general's office said that the provision of the law may force them to drop the marijuana possession and probation-violation charges pending against Martino, a 36-year-old Providence man who says marijuana alleviates the pain of his frequent migraine headaches.
In an interview Wednesday, Almeida and Carnevale said they want to take a second look at the affirmative-defense provision before trying to strike it entirely.
But their bill seeks to place stricter limits on who can legally grow the drug, and it would give the state police a power they do not have under current law to conduct unannounced inspections of the three official marijuana-dispensaries that lawmakers authorized last year.
More specifically, their bill would bar the state from registering anyone with a capital offense or felony drug conviction as a "caregiver," which is the state's term for someone licensed to grow and provide the illegal drug to someone legally allowed to use it.
Their bill would eliminate these caregivers from the medical marijuana pipeline entirely after Jan. 1, 2012, when the three marijuana dispensaries are presumably up and running. They are also seeking to eliminate a provision that allows registered users and "caregivers" to share their marijuana with others, noting that "in no other case are patients allowed to swap their prescription drugs."
Their bill would also remove the power to periodically inspect and scour the records of these marijuana dispensaries from the Department of Health, and would give that power to track dispensing records to the state police.
And finally, the bill would strip from the law a requirement that the governing board for each dispensary be made up of Rhode Island residents only. Carnevale said he has spoken with operators of a comparable facility in Colorado, and believes people with experience in this new arena could be helpful.
In the four years since the General Assembly passed a law allowing medicinal use of marijuana, the program has been growing steadily. As of Jan. 19, there were 966 licensed marijuana growers and providers supplying the drug to 1,227 Department of Health-approved patients, on the basis of medical-use applications signed by 345 doctors across the state.
A spokesman for Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said he had not yet seen the bill, but "our staff met with Representatives Almeida, Carnevale and [Peter] Kilmartin in December to talk about possible fixes and we look forward to continuing that dialogue soon. Having watched his brother suffer from and die of cancer more than 20 years ago, [Lynch] supports the truly medicinal uses of marijuana, but he is very concerned about defendants basically trying to tank the prosecution of legitimate criminal cases by using a loophole in this well-intentioned law."
January 28, 2010
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Bill in Rhode Island General Assembly Would Tighten Rules for Medical Marijuana