Rep. Joe Baker is about as unlikely an advocate for marijuana-reform legislation as one could find.
The husky West Rutland lawmaker calls himself a law-and-order Republican who has never smoked the drug in his life.
"I'm the original nerd," Baker says. "I wouldn't know what the processed stuff looks like if it was sitting on a table in front of me."
In 2004, when legislators legalized the use of medical marijuana for eligible patients, the military veteran cast his vote against the measure.
"It was against the law," he says.
But on Tuesday, Baker sat before his Senate colleagues to lobby in support of proposed legislation that would set up so-called "compassion centers" for the nearly 200 Vermonters now enrolled in the state's medical-marijuana registry. After watching his wife succumb to cancer five years ago, Baker says, he now understands the pain and suffering that lack of access can cause.
"There's just no safe, legal way to get that medicine," Baker says. "I want doctors and patients to have every tool available, and right now they don't."
This week, the Senate Committee on Government Operations dedicated two days of hearings to a bill that would establish nonprofit dispensaries for medical marijuana. The logistics are still up for debate – it's unclear whether pharmacies, nonprofits or even liquor stores would make the best medical-marijuana outlets. And the issue of supply also remains murky as legislators consider the merits of licensed growers versus confiscated contraband seized by law-enforcement officers.
But committee chairwoman Jeanette White, a Windham County Democrat, says she's serious about passing the bill this year.
"I'm very serious about this," White says. "We're not wedded to all the provisions as written, but I'm more than convinced that this is serious enough issue for us to act on."
Dispensaries can't come soon enough for people like Ian Rhein, a St. Johnsbury father of two with a bullet lodged in his back. "Countless" surgeries and medical procedures have failed to quell the pain, and the opiate painkillers prescribed by his doctor, he says, aren't nearly as effective as the marijuana that his Department-of-Safety-issued registration card allows him to possess legally.
"It really is a medicine to me," the Gulf War veteran told lawmakers. "It truly is a medicine that works for both the treatment of pain in my back as well as the post traumatic stress disorder which I was diagnosed with nearly eight years ago."
Problem is, Rhein says, he can't find any marijuana. Registered patients like himself are allowed to grow limited amounts of the plant, but concerns over his family's security and social stigma make that an unpalatable option for Rhein. Finding his medicine on the black market has proven even more harrowing. Not only is he unsure about the strain and quality of street cannabis, he says it's nearly impossible for a straight-edged guy like himself to find a willing seller.
"I don't have the dreadlocks or the long hair," he says. "I don't fit the stereotype I guess as to what a marijuana user is supposed to look like."
White says her bill aims to remedy Rhein's problem by establishing three to five nonprofit dispensaries at which registered users could secure a safe, legal, and more affordable supply of their medicine.
Baker says the Obama Administration's decision to dial back enforcement on state-sanctioned medical-marijuana dispensaries makes this the time to act.
"If the state says it's okay, and the federal government says it's okay, then now it's time to do this," Baker says.
The bill has drawn opposition from Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Tremblay, who has said that Vermont risks wider-spread illegal use should dispensaries be created. In addition to readier access to non-eligible residents, he said, the dispensaries would no doubt breed robberies and other crime.
Supporters of the legislation though say that the lack of dispensaries has bred its own set of problems for some of the state's most vulnerable residents.
"We're looking for safe access. I'm looking for safe access," Rhein says. "The reality of not having safe access is a stark reality for myself and anyone else I've talked to that is on the registry."
By Peter Hirschfeld
February 15, 2010
Medical marijuana bill gains ground in Vermont