As the spring legislative season at state capitols around the country begins to wind down, the record on medical marijuana at the statehouse this year is decidedly mixed. In the latest voting, legislators in Arkansas and Wyoming killed medical marijuana bills, but solons in Maryland and Vermont, where the issue has been in play for several sessions, have kept legislation alive and moving forward. Meanwhile, in Oregon, where voters passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1998, activists are mobilizing to defeat a bill that would place new restrictions on the existing program.
In Arkansas, a medical marijuana bill (HB 1321) sponsored by Rep. Jim Lendall (D-Mabelvale) died in committee March 12. The bill would have allowed registered patients to grow and possess small amounts of medical marijuana upon consultation with a doctor, but was restricted to pain relief for cancer, AIDS, and other "debilitating medical conditions."
Although the bill was supported with testimony by several patients and former US Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders and pushed by the Alliance for Drug Reform in Arkansas (http://www.ardpark.org), members of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee voted it down, citing concerns about making marijuana legal in some circumstances and questioning why prescription Marinol would not suffice.
Perhaps lawmakers were influenced by drug prohibitionist Ken Fithen, associate director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, who told the committee: "This bill would open the door to major problems with dangerous and toxic drugs. It's the gateway drug. We're sending a very wrong message to our young people."
In Wyoming, a medical marijuana bill sponsored by state Sen. Keith Goodenough (D-District 28) died Monday when the Senate leadership refused to act on it, instead placing it on the dead letter "general file." The defeat was at least the sixth for Goodenough's long-standing campaign to pass such a bill in Wyoming. Goodenough's bill would have allowed seriously ill people to use marijuana with their doctors' approval.
Goodenough had succeeded in guiding this year's bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, where several of his previous efforts had met their doom, on a 3-2 vote last month. "It's a fairness issue," Goodenough said at the time of that vote. "If you're gonna die in two months, you should be able to do whatever you want. It really bothers me that the government steps between the doctor and patient."
As in Arkansas, opponents of the Wyoming medical marijuana bill cited concerns about federal intervention and concerns about handling a non-pharmaceutical medicine, as well as reciting drug war bugaboos. One lobbyist for the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police warned the committee that marijuana use leads to violence.
But if this year's efforts have now failed in Arkansas and Wyoming, bills continued to move in recent days in Vermont and Maryland. On March 13, the Vermont Senate passed a medical marijuana bill by a margin of 22-7. The bill now moves on to the House, which passed an almost identical bill last year. The Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), which has spent nearly $150,000 on lobbying and other efforts to advance medical marijuana in Vermont in the last two years, reports that it expects this year's bill to pass the House.
But MPP is keeping a careful watch on Gov. Jim Douglas (R), who has been talking out of both sides of his mouth about medical marijuana in recent weeks. Last year, pressure from then Gov. Howard Dean (D), now a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, derailed a similar bill that seemed set to pass. MPP has announced a $20,000 TV advertising campaign to pressure Douglas to sign the bill if and when it passes the House.
"Last year, the Vermont House passed a nearly identical bill by a vote of 82-59, becoming the first Republican-controlled state legislative chamber ever to pass a medical marijuana bill," said Billy Rogers, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, DC. "We have every reason to expect a similar vote this year. Then, the question will be whether or not Governor Jim Douglas follows the will of Vermont's citizens and their elected representatives."
According to MPP, the House should vote on the bill next month.
And in Maryland, medical marijuana proponents won what MPP called a "partial victory" Tuesday when the state House of Delegates passed an amended version of HB 702 in a see-saw session that saw the bill first defeated, then passed on a second vote. The amended version of the bill, which reduces penalties for medical marijuana users but still leaves them facing arrest, lost in the first vote because some key supporters were not present and others voted "no" to protest its dilution.
"We support the amended version of this bill, but with reservations," MPP's Billy Rogers. MPP has supported medical marijuana legislation in Maryland for the past four legislative sessions. "While this bill is a step forward in our struggle to protect seriously ill Marylanders, it does not go far enough. Patients with cancer, AIDS and other serious illnesses will still be handcuffed, possibly spend a night in jail, prosecuted, and forced to hire lawyers to defend themselves. Under this bill, even if the court agrees that a patient was using medical marijuana legitimately, the patient will still be punished with a fine," said Rogers. "While we support this bill as a small step forward, we will certainly be back next year to advocate for legislation that removes the threat of arrest entirely."
Observers expect action in the state Senate soon. The bill was bottled up in a Senate committee awaiting action by the House, but now should be taken up again.
Finally, medical marijuana supporters are mobilizing to stop an Oregon bill that would force participants in that state's ongoing medical marijuana program to complete an education course and would bar anyone with a prior drug conviction from participating in the program. Introduced by Rep. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg), HB 2939 is set for a hearing at the Health and Human Services Committee today (March 21).
Oregon's medical marijuana program, despite some problems, has been a model for efforts across the nation. It has expanded from 594 card holders in April 2000 to 4,639 card holders in February.
To read the Vermont bill
online, go to:
To read the Maryland bill
online, go to:
To read the Oregon bill online,