Pubdate: Tue, 31 Jan 2006
Source: Brown Daily Herald, The (Brown, RI Edu)
Copyright: 2006 The Brown Daily Herald
MEDICAL MARIJUANA BILL TO PROVIDE RELIEF FOR TERMINALLY ILL IN RHODE ISLAND
On Jan. 3, Rhode Island became the eleventh state to legalize medical marijuana, overriding a June 2005 veto by Governor Donald Carcieri '65.
The new legislation "provides an alternative option for those men and women who have clinical pain and who are dealing with a terminal illness ( like cancer )," said District 3 State Sen. Rhoda Perry P'91, the Senate's main sponsor of the bill, who has supported similar measures for the past seven years.
Under the bill, doctors will be able to recommend that patients be issued medical marijuana registration cards by the state. These registration cards will protect patients from arrest under state law for possession of up to 12 marijuana plants, or 2.5 ounces of the drug.
"Our law has made possession of marijuana in small doses by properly enrolled patients and caregivers legal in the state of Rhode Island," Perry said. "On a federal level it is still illegal."
Carcieri has noted this as a major problem with the legislation, as noted in a Jan. 4 press release by Jeff Neal, the governor's press secretary. "Rhode Islanders who rely on state law can still be prosecuted criminally by the federal government," Neal wrote in the release.
"This is also a victory in the conversation about marijuana on a national level," said Nathaniel Lepp '06, a member of Brown's Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "The Rhode Island bill will accelerate the pace at which the federal government considers medical marijuana."
Perry stressed that while she has been a big proponent for medical marijuana, she is not in favor of legalizing the drug for purposes other than medicine.
"That is a far broader endorsement," she said.
Lepp said he believes the legislation represents a major success for student political activity.
"My main reflection on the medical marijuana campaign is that students have the capacity to initiate real change," Lepp said.
Perry agreed that activism from students at Brown and the University of Rhode Island was "helpful and meaningful."
Dr. Tom Bledsoe, clinical associate professor of medicine and interim director for the Center of Biomedial Ethics at the Brown Medical School, said he would prescribe marijuana if he encountered a patient whom he felt "might benefit" from its use.
"This is a relatively cheap, available and effective treatment," Bledsoe said.
Marijuana is defined by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no "therapeutic value," Bledsoe said. This classification pairs marijuana with often-abused drugs like heroin instead of drugs with recognized medical properties, like morphine.
The medical profession's response to the law involves a tenuous "grey zone," Bledsoe said. Practitioners might be prosecuted by the federal government for issuing licenses to possess marijuana, even while trying to do what is best for their patients, he said.
Another potential problem in prescribing marijuana involves doubts about dose strengths and impurities. In obtaining the drug off the street, the true content of the substance is unreliable, he said.
Carcieri's administration also considers this issue to be a major concern with the legislation. "This bill will encourage criminal activity because it does not provide any means for the legal purchase of medical marijuana," Neal said in the press release.
The law mandates that patients grow the marijuana plants indoors, on the theory that this is the safest way to obtain the drug.
Perry said this was a "concession" which aided the bill's passage. "There was too much controversy about growing the plants outside," she said.
A sunset provision in the law poses the next challenge for activists, as the medical marijuana statute will expire in July 2007. This was another concession "required to get more people to vote for the bill," Perry added, noting, "we would have lost meaningful votes without it."
The program itself until will not begin until April 3, 90 days after the law's passage. The Rhode Island Department of Health is still drawing up regulations to govern the program.
In other states, there have been few problems with the implementation phase of the medical marijuana program, according to Perry, who hopes that a similar situation in Rhode Island over the next year will encourage the General Assembly to extend it beyond 2007.
"There are claims that mari-juana laws will increase drug use amongst young people, but data of the last 10 years shows that the use of marijuana by young people mirrors national trends ( even in states with medical marijuana laws )," Lepp said.
When SSDP held its first meeting in the fall of 2002, the 20 or so members agreed that one of their long-term goals was to "make sure Rhode Island had a medical marijuana law by the time the youngest people there graduated," said Lepp, who was among these youngest students.
"This is really an issue of compassion for people in need," Lepp said. "If that wasn't the cause, I don't think the Senate would have overridden the governor's veto. This is a situation of tremendous political will and that comes from a place of compassion."
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