Medical marijuana continues to be a hot issue in state legislatures this year. While no bill has yet passed and bills have been killed in at least four states (Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota), medical marijuana bills are moving ahead in several states and just being introduced in others. While 10 states have enacted valid medical marijuana laws, only in Hawaii and Vermont have those laws come through the legislative process, and reformers are keen to pick up at least one or two more this year.
ALABAMA: A bill to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes was introduced March 31. Sponsored by Rep. Laura Hall (D-Madison) and three others, the Compassionate Use Act for Medical Marijuana would allow marijuana to be used to treat specified conditions, including AIDS, anorexia, and chronic pain, with a doctor's recommendation. The bill is currently awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
Alabama law currently makes no distinction between recreational and medical use, with anyone found guilty of possessing marijuana subject to a Class-A misdemeanor carrying a possible prison sentence.
The bill debuted at a Montgomery press conference last week that featured activists, patients, and lawmakers. "I believe this is a matter of choice for individuals with terminal illnesses and chronic pain who have more pain and medical challenges than most of us could ever imagine," said Hall.
"My parents said either I'm too stupid to be scared or I'm doing the right thing," said Laura Campbell, a medical marijuana patient who spoke about her own use of the herb and the need for medical patients to have legal access to it. "I've told the children that if the police show up, do not be disrespectful. Don't be ugly. They're doing their job," she adds. "What I'm doing is wrong, and I know that, but left with the alternative, I'm willing to take the risk to see if there can be a change."
But given Alabama's cultural climate, finding more people like Campbell who are willing to speak out could be difficult, said Loretta Nall, founder of the US Marijuana Party and Alabama gubernatorial candidate. "There is a lot of silent support," she said. "There are people who want to see it pass, but don't want to give up their political clout. Lots of people are hesitant, so it's been kind of difficult," she said.
It is unlikely the bill will pass this session. Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Marcel Black (D-Tuscumbia) has yet to schedule a hearing. Ranking minority committee member Rep. Stephan McMillan (R-Bay Minette) told the Huntsville Times he is undecided on whether to support the bill. "Conceivably, yes, if there were enough controls on it. I don't want to open it up so anyone and his brother can say, 'I've got a medical condition,'" McMillan said.
And even if the bill does pass, it is likely to be vetoed by Gov. Bob Riley (R). "The governor does not support the legislation to legalize marijuana or any other illegal drug," said John Matson, Riley's press secretary.
CONNECTICUT: A medical marijuana bill backed by a coalition including the Drug Policy Alliance, Alliance Connecticut, and A Better Way Foundation won a favorable report from the legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee Tuesday, passing by a margin of 26-13.
Last year, a similar bill nearly made it, but died for lack of a floor vote at the end of the session. This year, advocates and sponsor Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R-Somers) are increasingly confident the measure will pass. "Not only does this bill protect the rights of Connecticut citizens to receive compassionate care, but it also protects their sacred relationships with their physicians," said Michael Blain, Director of the Alliance's Office of Public Policy. "We are close to winning medical marijuana legislation this year."
The bill, newly renamed SB 124, is now on its way to the state Senate, where it has strong bipartisan support. In the Senate, it must work its way through additional committees.
MINNESOTA: In a Gopher State first, a bill that would legalize the use of medical marijuana in Minnesota passed the Senate Health and Family Security Committee on a 5-2 vote Tuesday. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Kelley (DFL-44th District), SF 1973 would protect medical marijuana patients and their caregivers from prosecution.
An incident involving one witness for the bill demonstrated the need for relief for medical marijuana patients in the state. Jerome Schaffer, 63, who testified in favor of the bill, was arrested for pot possession after leaving a hospital where he sought treatment for complications of his cancer chemotherapy. Police handcuffed Schaffer and jailed him overnight.
"This bill is about making sure people like me aren't arrested for taking our medicine," said Schaffer. "I'm proud that our legislators passed the bill, and I'm going to keep fighting for it until it's on the governor's desk."
"We're thrilled the committee recognized the urgent need to protect our most vulnerable citizens," said Neal Levine, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project and a former Minnesotan. "Seriously ill people have enough to worry about without the threat of arrest and imprisonment. This victory will give the bill momentum as it moves through the Legislature."
RHODE ISLAND: One of the best chances for passage of a medical marijuana bill this year is Rhode Island, where more than 50 representatives have cosponsored the bill, including Majority Leader Gordon Fox (D-Providence). In the state Senate, Senate President Joseph Montalbano (D-North Providence), Majority Leader Teresa Paiva (D-Newport) and Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) all support the bill.
The Rhode Island bill, SB710, the Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act, would protect patients and caregivers from arrest if a doctor certifies with the Department of Health that the benefits of marijuana would outweigh any risks for treating specified debilitating medical conditions, including any "chronic or debilitating disease" that produces symptoms such as chronic pain, muscle spasms, nausea, seizures, or wasting. Patients could possess up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of "usable marijuana."
On Tuesday, the bill got a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where legislators heard from several patients, including Rhonda O'Donnell, 42, of Warwick. Rolling her wheelchair to the witness stand, O'Donnell told the committee she was a registered nurse who suffers from multiple sclerosis. While she said she had not used marijuana to relieve her "painful spasticity," she testified that others had found relief with it and asked the legislators not to stand in the way of medicine. "Please make this issue a medical one rather than a political one," she said.
While the bill has drawn impressive support, including AIDS Project Rhode Island, the Rhode Island ACLU, the Marijuana Policy Project, as well as respected scientists like Dr. David Lewis, former director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, it has also generated opposition. The legislature has received letters critical of the measure from the Drug-Free Schools Coalition and Drug-Free Kids: America's Challenge.
TEXAS: Rep. Elliot Naishtat (D-Austin) has introduced HB658 "relating to the medical use of marijuana", which would allow for an affirmative defense for medical marijuana patients who are arrested. The bill had a hearing in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Tuesday. At that hearing, a long list of patients backed by Texans for Medical Marijuana testified as to the utility of marijuana in easing their symptoms. With no vote yet scheduled, the bill remains in committee.
Rep. Naishtat was on the defensive in Austin, quickly pointing out that the bill would not legalize drugs. "It does not legalize anything. It creates an affirmative defense to let the jury decide if this is a legitimate medicinal use of medicinal marijuana," he said.
But Gov. Rick Perry (R) has signaled he would veto any such bill. Perry's office said the measure would encourage illegal drug use.
Still, medical marijuana is now officially on the political agenda in Texas, as well as Alabama and Minnesota. And more mature efforts in Connecticut and Rhode Island appear to have a chance of bearing fruit this year.