The Vermont Senate voted Wednesday to make the state the ninth in the country to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons. It is only the second to do so through the state legislature. The Hawaiian legislature approved medical marijuana in 2000, while voters resorted to the initiative process to win victories in seven states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. And aside from a vote in Maryland last year that allowed medical marijuana use as a defense against criminal charges, the victory in Vermont is the first for medical marijuana in the states in four years.
It is a done deal. The Vermont House approved the measure last week, and it passed the Senate by a 20-7 vote margin this week. Gov. James Douglas (R), who has been decidedly unenthusiastic about the bill, announced in a Wednesday press release that he will not veto it, but will allow it to pass into law unsigned.
"We are happy that the legislature and the governor finally listened to the people of Vermont," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), the Washington, DC-based organization that backed the Vermont effort. "This took a whole lot of effort on the part of a lot of people, including a lot of brave patients in Vermont who stuck their necks out by coming forward. Now, we're going to have a law allowed to take effect by a Republican governor with bipartisan support," he told DRCNet.
While Vermont legislators okayed a medical marijuana bill, however, it was watered down in the process. Last year, the Senate approved a version that would have okayed medical marijuana for a broad range of conditions, allowed for the possession of up to seven plants, and placed registration of users under the Department of Health. But the version approved by the House last week narrowed the list of eligible conditions, reduced the number of plants allowed, and put the Department of Public Safety (the cops) in charge of the medical marijuana users' registry.
Under the bill as passed, only patients suffering from AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis may legally possess or grow a limited amount of medical marijuana. Patients growing their own marijuana are limited to a maximum of three plants in a locked room, while other patients may possess up to two ounces of usable marijuana.
"It's not exactly what we would have liked," said Mirken, "but it is better than what we got in Maryland. It shouldn't have been this difficult, and that's a sign of how out of touch some of these politicians are. The people understand how nuts it is to arrest sick people for merely trying not to suffer so badly. I don't know of any issue with this level of public support where it is so difficult to win a victory."
Officials in the office of Gov. Douglas told the Rutland Herald that the White House had lobbied him to veto the measure. Deputy drug czar Dr. Andrea Barthwell showed up last month to lobby against the bill, and "a Bush administration official" called Douglas urging him to reject it, the Herald reported. But if Washington was telling him one thing, Vermonters were telling him another -- and he listened.
A report in the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus even suggested that Gov. Douglas had pushed the House to pass its amended bill – in order to prevent the passage of the more far-reaching version approved last year by the Senate and to remove it as a campaign issue. The newspaper cited two nearly apoplectic Republican legislators, Rep. Loren Shaw and Rep. Nancy Sheltra, both of Derby, furious with Douglas for signaling support for the House version.
And Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs confirmed those accounts, calling the Senate version a "dangerous proposal" that was too far-reaching. "That was an extremely broad and, from a public safety point of view, dangerous proposal," Gibbs told the Times-Argus. "The administration has said to House leaders that if in fact their body is going to pass a marijuana bill, it should be as narrow as possible and address as many public safety concerns as possible."
Broad public support for medical marijuana influenced the governor and legislative leaders, said Gibbs. "What I do know is that the governor and legislative leaders have talked about the broad public support for a compassionate effort to help those with terminal illnesses and severe, debilitating conditions alleviate their symptoms."
A similar effort in Connecticut came agonizingly close before being killed by the House leadership in the last week of the state's legislative session. Reintroduced by Rep. James Abrams (D-Meriden) after losing in the House by 12 votes last year, the bill would have allowed persons suffering from diseases such as AIDS, cancer, and multiple sclerosis to grow and possess pot legally for medical reasons with a doctor's recommendation.
Abrams and medical marijuana supporters had enough support to get the bill approved by through three committees – Judiciary, Appropriations and Public Health – and, after that, in a House floor vote. With only a week left in the session, the bill should have been sent to the Senate for approval without delay.
But it was instead sabotaged by House Majority Leader James Amann (D-Milford), who claimed the bill now needed to be reviewed by the Finance committee. That committee, acting promptly, actually approved the bill, but Amann refused to return it to the floor for another vote.
In an interview with the Bridgeport News, Amann denied that he had maneuvered to kill the bill. "If I didn't want it heard or debated, it would not have made it that far," Amann said. "The reality is that the bill had to go back to Finance. That's part of the process." Amann argued that the late version of the bill had financial implications. "If it cost money, it has to go to finance," Amann said. "We did exactly what should have been done."
But the powerful legislator conceded he opposed the bill, saying medical marijuana was not proven. "There are still just too many questions," Amann said.
Elsewhere in the Northeast, medical marijuana bills remain alive in Rhode Island and New York state. The Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act, which would allow patients with a qualifying illness and a doctor's recommendation to possess up to one ounce or grow up to six plants, has 20 cosponsors, broad public support, and "no organized opposition," said MPP's Mirken.
Prospects appear less cheery for the New York medical marijuana bill, as legislators in the Empire State devote all their attention to grappling with budget issues. But at worst, with the victory in Vermont, this is the first year since 2000 any state has managed to legalize medical marijuana.