Delaware's proposal echoes other states' tolerant attitudes
In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush claimed 59 percent of the vote in beating John Kerry in Montana -- no surprise in one of the most conservative states in the nation.
During the same election, 62 percent of Montana voters gave thumbs up to a proposal that would legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
The lesson? Delaware legislators don't necessarily have to stick out their necks politically to legalize medical marijuana use here.
Since California passed a law legalizing medical marijuana in 1996, 12 more states have followed suit. An advocate of the Delaware proposal says that tally is more significant than it might seem.
"Thirteen states with a quarter of the country's population is not insignificant," said Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana PolicyProject, a Washington-based organization that has helped establish medical marijuana programs in five of the 13 states.
"They've been passing at the rate of one a year since 1996, even with intense opposition from the federal government. In most places, there's very intense opposition from law enforcement combined with, frankly, timidity on the part of legislators who don't understand how popular this issue is. They're more afraid of the issue than they need to be."
While Delaware legislators sitting on the health committee unanimously voted to let the measure advance to a vote of the full state Senate, heads of the local law-enforcement agencies oppose it.
"The International Association of Chiefs of Police has come out with a statement that, with all the modern medicine out there, there's lot of alternatives to legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, so we're opposing it," said Newport Police Chief Michael Capriglione, president of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council.
Medical marijuana laws are gaining ground at the state level. Of the 13 states with such laws, four approved them through their legislatures and nine approved them by ballot measures.
In the most recent of those, Michigan voters approved a referendum by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin. Voters have approved such programs in every state where they have appeared on the ballot except in South Dakota, where 52 percent of voters rejected an initiative in 2006.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says moves are afoot in at least 15 other states to establish medical marijuana programs.
Attitudes also are softening at the federal level.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to an appeals court ruling that state laws were not necessarily pre-empted by federal prohibitions against the medical use of marijuana. The Obama administration has said it will end the Bush administration's practice of prosecuting medical marijuana use in states with laws allowing it.
Model legislation followed
On June 3, Delaware's Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, was cleared by the Senate Health and Social Services Committee for debate on the Senate floor, but is on hold pending the introduction of technical amendments.
Henry was not available for comment last week, but a co-sponsor, Sen. Liane Sorenson, R-Hockessin, said that, with just a few legislative days to go in the session, it might be prudent to reserve debate until a new session begins in January.
With the passage of SB 94, which essentially reflects model legislation drawn up by the Marijuana Policy Project, physicians would be authorized to recommend medical marijuana use by their patients, who then would obtain state-issued ID cards allowing them to purchase up to six ounces of marijuana a month from state-sanctioned "compassion care centers" or grow up to 12 plants on their own.
Employers would be barred from firing workers whose legal drug use caused them to flunk drug screenings, but such employees could be dismissed for coming to work high.
Delaware would become the fourth state -- along with California, New Mexico and Rhode Island -- to authorize sales of marijuana to people with ID cards.
Last Tuesday, the Rhode Island Legislature overrode Gov. Donald Carcieri's veto of a bill that would allow the state to sanction medical marijuana dispensaries, which means that authorized users won't have to take to the streets to buy it. Only three of the state's 105 legislators voted against the measure.
At the Delaware Senate committee hearing, nobody spoke in opposition to the bill. It drew expressions of support from people who have smoked marijuana illegally to relieve pain that came with serious injuries.
'I just want to relieve my pain'
The bill would limit marijuana use to people with "debilitating medical conditions" -- the definition of which includes cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and medical conditions that cause wasting syndrome, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, and severe and persistent muscle spasms.
"I don't want to be a lawbreaker, but, unfortunately, that's the position I'm in right now," said Brian Larson, 38, of Newark, who smokes marijuana illegally to relieve chronic pain from back operations, in remarks distributed by the Senate Democratic Caucus' communications office. "I'm a former construction worker, an avid boater and rock climber. I'm not a lazy loafer who just wants to sit around and get stoned. I just want to relieve my pain so I can continue to function as I did in the past."
In establishing the country's first medical marijuana program, California became a target for a federal government that still does not recognize the legitimacy of state programs. In the past, state-sanctioned marijuana growers were frequent subjects of drug-enforcement raids and prosecution.
The Controlled Substances Act still trumps state laws intended to protect physicians who recommend the use of marijuana and people who grow it, but the Obama administration has said it won't hassle agents of state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs.
At the state Senate hearing earlier this month, Dr. John Goodill, chief of pain and palliative medicine at the Christiana Care Health Center, endorsed SB 94, saying it was based on a model proven in other states.
"The bill follows a model that has worked well in other states to date," Goodill told the Senate Committee, according to a transcript provided by the Senate Democratic Caucus' communications office. "I think the medical evidence is compelling enough to add it to the list of options for relieving suffering in people living with serious illness and chronic pain."
The Medical Society of Delaware has taken a neutral position, with its members divided on the bill. At the Senate panel hearing, the society's lobbyist said some physicians support marijuana as an inexpensive option to treat chronic conditions, while eye doctors opposed it because they didn't think glaucoma should be included as a condition for which marijuana could be prescribed.
Sorenson, the Hockessin senator, said in an interview that an encounter with a "very conservative constituent" and his ailing wife prompted her to sign on as a co-sponsor of SB 94.
"His wife was dying of cancer, and she was smoking a pipe full of marijuana," Sorenson said. "She said it was the only thing that helped her, and that stuck with me."
By JAMES MERRIWEATHER
The News Journal
June 22, 2009