(Breaking: New Mexico effort still alive...)
Only a dozen years ago, no state made provision for the medicinal use of marijuana. Now, eleven years after California led the way with 1996's Proposition 215 initiative, patients have legal access to marijuana in 11 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington), while Maryland allows patients to mount an affirmative defense to marijuana charges. Arizona voters also passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1996, but because of its wording requiring a doctor's prescription (instead of a recommendation), the law there is essentially inoperative.
While in most medical marijuana states, the laws came about through the initiative and referendum process -- only Hawaii, Vermont, and Rhode Island have legalized medical marijuana through the legislature -- medical marijuana bills are pending this year in more than 20 states, according to a list provided to Drug War Chronicle by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). While advocates concede that given the cumbersome process of making law in the country's state houses, actual passage of medical marijuana legislation is likely this year in only a handful of states at best, it seems that medical marijuana has come in from the cold and is now a thoroughly mainstream issue.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey addresses 2005 medical marijuana press conference as Montel Williams awaits his turn at the podium
"There have been a bunch of bills introduced this year, with more to come," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "While in many cases we don't know off-hand what their chances are and many of them don't have a serious, professional effort behind them to get them passed, this is a good sign that this is no longer a fringe issue," he said.
"It is now clear that medical marijuana is increasingly a mainstream issue that is not terribly controversial anymore," Mirken continued. "Slowly but surely, legislators around the country are coming to realize this is something the public supports and that they can safely support."
"Many of these states have had about 10 years to vet this, there have been multiple bills introduced, multiple hearings, the first time out, they're generally not so successful, but the second time out, they get a little more traction, and by the third time it is almost self-evident that something has to be done," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "A few years ago, it was hard to point to a medical marijuana model, but now there are lots of models. At this point, legislators have no excuse for dragging their feet; they feel the moral imperative of responding to people who are sick and dying."
In several states with already existing medical marijuana laws, efforts are underway to expand those programs. Those states include Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In other states, efforts are afoot to enact medical marijuana laws for the first time. Here are some of the highlights:
In Illinois, a medical marijuana bill, SB 650, was passed Tuesday by the Senate Public Health Committee and now awaits a third reading next week. It is expected to get a Senate floor vote within a month. Introduced by Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the bill would allow people diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition and their primary caregiver to register with the state for permission to possess up to 12 marijuana plants and 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana.
Despite concerns voiced by law enforcement and social conservatives, legislators in the committee voted 6-4 to approve the measure. They were swayed in part by testimony from the group Illinois Drug Education and Legislative (IDEAL) Reform, as well as citizens like Gretchen Steele of Coulterville. Steele, a registered nurse and multiple sclerosis sufferer, told the committee marijuana was able to effectively and safely treat her symptoms when other, more dangerous drugs had failed.
"I can tell you from firsthand experience that marijuana works better to control the spasticity, neuropathic pain, and tremors than do any of the myriad prescription medications that I currently take," she told the committee. "The fact that it is perfectly legal for my doctors to prescribe morphine, OxyCodone, diazepam, hydrocodone, and other drugs that are not only highly addictive but have many unpleasant side effects, yet it remains illegal to recommend marijuana, is beyond reasoning."
In Minnesota, SF0345 would allow patients suffering from a debilitating medical condition and who have a doctor's recommendation to register with the state to be protected from prosecution. Patients or caregivers could possess up to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana.
The bill has already passed the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee on a bipartisan voice vote and now awaits action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the measure "stands a good chance of passage in the Minnesota Legislature this year."
While the usual suspects -- law enforcement and social conservatives -- strongly oppose the bill, the Star-Tribune reports that half of House Republicans could vote for it. "Ten years ago it would have had no chance," said Rep. Steve Sviggum, who introduced a companion bill in the House. "Two years ago I probably would have been in opposition. This is a very emotional issue, but hopefully facts and information will come to the forefront."
In New Hampshire, Rep. Tim Robertson (D-Keene) announced this week that the medical marijuana bill he is sponsoring, HB 774, will get a hearing in the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee next Monday. Also this week, supporters in the Granite State released a poll showing 68% approval for medical marijuana there.
"This poll is just another indication that New Hampshire's medical marijuana bill is not only sensible, compassionate legislation -- it's also politically popular," said Robertson. "Voters are sending us a clear message: Give us a humane medical marijuana law now."
"I'm not at all surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of Granite Staters support people like me who only want the freedom to make the best medical decisions possible," said Ian Taschner, who suffers from severe nausea. "I should be able to battle my debilitating symptoms and lead a semi-normal life without having to worry that using my doctor-recommended medicine makes me a criminal."
In New Mexico, proponents came closer than last year, picking up the support of Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who signaled his support for the bill. With time running out on this session -- it ends within two weeks -- he called Tuesday for the legislature to get moving on several of his pet projects, including medical marijuana. "We've only got a few days to go, and I'm urging very quick action on the ethics package," Richardson told local reporters. "I'm urging very quick, strong action on predatory lending. I want that cockfighting bill, I want medical marijuana, I want my tax cuts."
Late Thursday night when this article was finalized, Drug War Chronicle reported here that a vote was still pending and chances seemed good. Friday morning we received the news that the Lynn & Erin Compassionate Use Act (SB007), failed a House vote 36-33 on Thursday afternoon.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, advocates of the legislation have vowed to continue their efforts. Erin Armstrong, a 25-year-old cancer victim after whom the bill was named, told the New Mexican, "We'll try it till it gets through. We're not going to give up on the state's patient community."
On Sunday it was reported that the issue was saved from legislative oblivion through efforts by Gov. Richardson and that the Senate had passed a modified version of the bill that will now in turn go before the House.
Meanwhile, medical marijuana proponents in states that already have such laws are looking to either strengthen or expand them:
In Maryland, the Maryland Compassionate Use Act (HB1040) was the subject of a Tuesday hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. While Maryland has a 2003 law that allows limited protection for medical marijuana patients, the new measure would allow patients to use the herb without fear of arrest or prosecution. It would create a registry, allow patients or caregivers to possess up to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana, and bring Maryland fully into the ranks of the medical marijuana states.
The Maryland effort is supported by MPP, the Drug Policy Alliance, and Americans for Safe Access. "The science to support medical cannabis is overwhelming, yet the current law continues to treat patients like criminals. What seriously and chronically ill patients in Maryland need is assurance that their rights as patients will be protected," said Caren Woodson, Government Relations Director, Americans for Safe Access.
In Rhode Island, where the legislature last year overrode a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) to approve a medical marijuana bill, supporters are back this year to remove a sunset provision which would see the program expire on June 30. Rep. Thomas Slater (D-Providence), who, along with Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), spearheaded last year's successful effort, is also behind the move to make it permanent.
"This is my third year involved with this bill," Slater said. "The first year we didn't really get anywhere. The second year we were very successful. It was overridden by the governor's veto but we were able to get the final vote. Now what we're trying to do is keep the marijuana bill alive to relieve patients' vomit [and] nausea, and to help people with cancer and muscular dystrophy. Right now we have 52 signatures, so I don't think we'll have any trouble passing it," he said. "If the governor vetoes, we're hoping to override that decision."
The states mentioned in this article aren't the only ones with medical marijuana legislation either introduced or pending, but they are the ones with the best chances of success this year. Still, given the difficulties of moving bills of any type through state legislatures, it would be a good year indeed if the number of medical marijuana states were to expand by three or four.