Medical Marijuana in the State Legislatures, 2004 3/19/04

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After a spate of victories for medical marijuana in the states at the turn of the century, all but one via the initiative process, the spread of legalized medical marijuana has been stalled. Last year, the only medical marijuana victory was in Maryland, and that vote didn't legalize medical marijuana but merely mandated a maximum $100 fine (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/288/yesandno.shtml).

Still, this year the effort continues as reformers and patients take the fight to state legislatures around the country. Relying primarily on a Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) database, DRCNet has identified 10 states with medical marijuana issues before the legislature: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

While victory has yet to be secured in any of them, movement observers are pointing to one or more of the New England states as the best chance to win a victory at the statehouse this year. "We've been putting most of our resources into Illinois and the New England states," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "I think our best, most realistic shot is in New England. Last year in Connecticut, we got as far as a house floor vote, and the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Jim Abrams (D-Meriden), is talking seriously about winning a floor vote this year," he told DRCNet.

"We've been activating our base, particularly in Vermont," said Kris Krane of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org). "We worked with MPP on the successful initiative in Burlington (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/327/burlington.shtml)," Krane told DRCNet. "Connecticut and Vermont look like the best bets," he said. "Those are both states where it came close to passing last year."

Progress has been slow the last couple of years, MPP's Mirken conceded, even as he pointed to some reasons why. "If there has been a slowing in laws being enacted, it's not for lack of public support, but because we are taking a more difficult road, going through the legislatures in states where there is no initiative process," he explained. "Most of our effort in the past couple of years has been in the state legislatures. While working legislatures has its advantages -- it is less expensive to do a legislative lobbying campaign than a state-wide initiative campaign -- it is inherently a slower and more difficult process. Legislators are still easily spooked on this issue, and it is easy for a key committee chairman to just bottle up a measure he doesn't like."

And the opposition from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office) is more focused than before, Mirken said. "Particularly under the Bush administration, the opposition is more intense. Earlier this month, for instance, Dr. Andrea Barthwell from the drug czar's office swooped into Illinois just telling absolute lies, like claiming that Marinol doesn't get you high. She needs to look in her Physicians' Desk Reference," he groaned. "They've gone from spin and distortion and exaggeration to flat-out shameless lies. That kind of intense opposition has an effect; it puts Republican legislators and governors in a very awkward position, even if they're inclined to be supportive. Do you buck the White House in an election year? Still, even in the face of all that, in many places we are getting bipartisan support," Mirken said.

Here's what's going on state by state:

CALIFORNIA: SB 1494 would adjust California's existing medical marijuana law by providing that a qualified patient or caregiver may possess any amount of marijuana consistent with medical needs and providing that a person holding a medical marijuana identification card could not be arrested for possessing up to eight ounces or six mature or 12 immature plants. The bill is set for a hearing in the Committee on Health and Human Services on Wednesday.

To read the California bill online, visit:
http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/postquery?bill_number=sb_1494&sess=CUR&house=B&author=vasconcellos

CONNECTICUT: Persistence could pay off for Rep. James Abram (D-Meriden) this year. He has introduced a bill each year since 2000, inching painfully closer each year. In his first try, he failed to get a hearing; in his second try, he got a hearing but no committee vote; last year, the bill was approved by the Legislature Judiciary Committee before failing in a vote before the House.

This year, the bill, HB 5355, is moving again. It passed the Judiciary Committee on a 24-15 vote on Monday. Now it is headed to the Legislative Commissioner's Office, where it will most likely be forwarded to the Public Health Committee for further review. It provides a legal defense for patients who use marijuana for certain medical conditions with a doctor's recommendation, and allow patients or caregivers to grow up to five plants.

To read the bill and track its status online, visit:
http://www.cga.state.ct.us/asp/cgabillstatus/cgabillstatus.asp?selBillType=Bill&bill_num=HB05355&which_year=2004

HAWAII: Legislators in the Aloha State became the first (and still only) in the nation to pass a medical marijuana bill in 2002. This year reformers are attempting to fine-tune the program with SB2641. It contains changes in the law that would make the program more efficient and easier for seriously ill patients, but most significantly, it transfers administration of the state's medical marijuana program from a law enforcement agency, the Department of Public Safety, to the state Department of Health.

The bill has made it through the Senate, passing on a 22-1 vote on March 9, and is now headed for the House Health, Judiciary, and Finance committees. It could run into a roadblock there, said Pam Lichty of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, who has been monitoring the bill's progress. "We have one committee chair who is going to be a real hard sell," she told DRCNet.

To read the bill and related documents online, visit http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/site1/docs/docs.asp?press1=docs and enter the bill's number, SB2641.

ILLINOIS: The Medical Cannabis Act, which would allow persons diagnosed by a doctor as having a debilitating medical condition and their primary caregivers to possess up to six plants and an ounce of usable marijuana, appears to be stalled. Persons covered under the act would be issued registry identification cards by the Department of Human Services.

The bill got a hearing March 2 in the House Health Care Availability and Access Committee, but MPP reported that because it appeared the bill would be voted down in committee, Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), the committee's chair and a medical marijuana supporter, placed the bill in a subcommittee where it will languish until another hearing can be scheduled this summer.

The Illinois bill was notable for attracting the presence of Dr. Andrea Barthwell, deputy director for demand reduction at the drug czar's office, who showed up as the measure was being considered to lobby against it.

To read the bill, HB4868, and track its progress online, visit:
http://www.legis.state.il.us/legislation/billstatus.asp?DocNum=4868&GAID=3&DocTypeID=HB&LegID=9532&SessionID=3

MISSISSIPPI: HB84, which would have allowed the medical use of marijuana by seriously ill patients under a doctor's supervision, is dead. The Mississippi legislative web site reports that that the bill, which was referred to the Judiciary Committee, died there on March 9.

To read the bill and related documents online, visit:
http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/2004/html/history/HB/HB0084.htm

MISSOURI: Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson (D-Columbia) was back for the second year with a bill that would allow patients to use marijuana under a doctor's supervision. She managed to get a public hearing before the Health Care Policy Committee on March 3, but the bill is now effectively dead, with no further hearings or other actions scheduled.

Wilson told the Columbia Missourian she had little hope for this year. "In an election year particularly, legislators are afraid that people will see them as either soft on crime or soft on drugs," Wilson said. "So they are less likely to listen to the reasonable arguments about alleviating pain."

To read the bill and related documents online, visit:
http://www.house.state.mo.us/bills041/bills/hb1348.htm

NEW YORK: A05796, the New York medical marijuana bill, is alive and moving. It passed the Assembly Health Committee on an 18-6 vote February 25 and must now be approved by the Codes and Ways and Means committees before going to a floor vote. If it passes that hurdle, it faces a rockier reception in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Read DRCNet's in depth coverage of the battle in New York from three weeks ago at:
http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/326/nymedmj.shtml

Read the bill and related documents online at:
http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?bn=A05796

RHODE ISLAND: SB2357, the Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act, was introduced February 11 and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. With no hearings scheduled, the bill appears to be stalled. A companion bill introduced in the House, HB7588, was introduced a week earlier and referred to the House Health Education and Welfare committee, again with no hearings scheduled.

Read the text of the Senate bill online at:
http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Billtext/BillText04/SenateText04/S2357.pdf

Read the text of the House bill online at:
http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Billtext/BillText04/HouseText04/H7588.pdf

VERMONT: S76, the Vermont medical marijuana bill, was already passed by the state Senate on a 22-7 vote and is currently before the House Health and Welfare Committee. But it could die there. Committee chair Tom Koch (R-Barre) told the Burlington Free Press earlier this month it is unlikely the bill will move further because he does not consider it a priority.

But the pressure is on. Fresh on the heels of a dramatic victory (82%) in a Burlington initiative instructing the city to tell the legislature to support medical marijuana, Vermont NORML targeted Burlington Rep. Bill Keogh (D), who sits on the committee, to cast a vote that could force Koch to address the bill.

To track the bill's status and read it online, visit:
http://www.leg.state.vt.us/database/status/summary.cfm?Bill=S%2E0076&Session=2004

WISCONSIN: AB892, the state's medical marijuana bill is dead this session, said Gary Storck of Is My Medicine Legal Yet (http://www.immly.org), the Wisconsin-based patients' right organization deeply involved in the effort. "I just confirmed with a staffer for my representative that the bill is dead as of the end of session today," Storck said Tuesday. "We have to hope it gets introduced early next January," he told DRCNet.

Wisconsin patients and caregivers were cheered last fall when Rep. Gregg Underheim (R-Oshkosh) revealed he would introduce a bill, but Storck said that bill was held up in drafting and not introduced until February 23 -- too late for a legislative session that ended this week.

Read the bill and its tracking information online at:
http://www.legis.state.wi.us/2003/data/AB892hst.html

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