This year started off with efforts to pass medical marijuana legislation in some 20-odd states. Now, with the legislative clock ticking down in statehouses around the country, no state has passed a bill so far, and the best prospects for a successful outcome are now narrowing down to three states in the Northeast: Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. In all three states, despite the progress that has been made, legislative hurdles remain and passage of a bill in any of them is by no means assured.
Given the very nature of state legislative sessions, with hundreds of bills offered and increasingly frantic wheeling and dealing as sessions wind down, and given the inertia with which state legislators as a class confront the medical marijuana issue, this is not much of a surprise. Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told DRCNet in a January interview that he would consider it a good year if one or two states managed to pass a bill.
"If more states had the initiative process, we would have 15 or 20 states with medical marijuana laws today instead of 10," MPP communications director Bruce Mirken elaborated Wednesday, "but in most states, the legislature is the only system we have. And there is a huge disconnect between public opinion as expressed in polls and the legislators on this issue. They're nervous, they're afraid voting for this will hurt them, even though there is absolutely no evidence that is true."
And the problem isn't just legislators, said Mirken, it's the legislative process. "People talk about legislation moving down the pipeline," he said, "but it's not a nice, clear, open pipeline. There are twists and turns and valves that can be open and shut. If you have a hostile committee chair at any point, you can be blocked, even if it is something that would pass if it ever got to a straight up-and-down vote. And you can get a committee chair who is not necessarily hostile to your bill, but to its sponsor, so bills can get killed that way."
Which is precisely what happened earlier this year in New Mexico. There, a medical marijuana bill that appeared well on its way to passage was unexpectedly derailed by legislators who hoped to pressure its sponsor on completely unrelated real estate development legislation.
Hopes are high that that kind of unforeseen end won't happen in Connecticut, where SB 124 continues to pass hurdle after legislative hurdle, thanks to a strong cadre of supporters, including the Alliance Connecticut, United Methodist Church of Connecticut, Connecticut Nurses Association, Dr. Andrew Salner, Director of the Helen & Harry Gray Cancer Center at Hartford Hospital, A Better Way Foundation, and the Drug Policy Alliance. Championed by state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R-Somers), the bill removes the threat of arrest or prosecution from patients with "debilitating diseases" who have a written recommendation from a doctor. It sets limits of five plants and one ounce of usable marijuana. Patients must register with the Department of Consumer Affairs.
"The Connecticut medical marijuana bill has been through five committees in an attempt to kill it," said Robert Rooks, executive director of the A Better Way Foundation, a Connecticut-based drug and sentencing reform group working with the Drug Policy Alliance on the effort in the Constitution state. "With the favorable vote in the Appropriations Committee today [Thursday], which we thought would be the most difficult to pass, I think we have a very good shot."
But even if the bill makes its way successfully through a full Senate vote next week, time is tight. Still, said Rooks, it can still happen. "We have two full weeks, and that is enough time in the House. Once the bill gets out of committee there, we have commitments from the leadership to bring it to a vote. In any event, we are going to just keep plugging along."
"The legislature needs to enact a medicinal marijuana law that allows the drug to be used in tightly controlled instances with a doctor's supervision and that is compassionate toward patients who are desperate to ease their pain," Bruno, who has had a bout with prostate cancer, said as he appeared with Williams. "As a cancer survivor, I understand how difficult it is to live day to day with a painful, life-threatening illness."
Bruno pronounced himself "confident" that agreement could be reached with the Assembly on a bill. Companion legislation there is moving, passing the Assembly Health Committee last week on a 17-5 vote.
"This is something of a breakthrough for New York," said MPP's Mirken. "It's clear that Montel's active involvement has helped call a lot of attention to it and helped to educate some people on the more conservative side of the spectrum. We still need to get this moving in the senate, but at least now there is grounds for cautious optimism."
While some conservatives may have been getting educated, the Conservative Party wasn't among them. In a statement it issued in response to Bruno's move, the party called marijuana a gateway drug, and, apparently reading from the drug czar's playbook, added:
"Smoking crude marijuana is known to trigger attacks of manic depression, schizophrenia and memory loss. Moreover, an increase in teen suicides has been linked to marijuana, while persons under the influence of marijuana are 10 times more likely to be involved in fatal traffic collisions than persons driving under the influence of alcohol."
While Republican Gov. George Pataki isn't resorting to Reefer Madness-style rhetoric, his office has also signaled strong opposition to medical marijuana, and the threat of a possible veto looms over any bill that makes it to his desk. People should try Marinol instead, one state official suggested. "Our experts indicate there are FDA-approved legal alternatives that would provide the same medical benefit, if not better," said state Health Department Spokesman Bill VanSlyke. "We are no less sensitive to the pain and suffering people endure, but we have to make sure the decisions we make are the right ones for the patient."
In Rhode Island, S 710, the Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and is headed for a floor vote, while a companion measure, H 6052, was the subject of hearings in the House Health Education and Welfare Committee at the same time. Both bills would allow Rhode Islanders suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses to use marijuana without fear of penalty if they have a written doctor's recommendation and have registered with the state.
"It is time that this bill is passed so that we can alleviate the pain, the nausea and the disorientation that occurs when many of these very ill people are on a variety of other painkillers," said Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), the Senate sponsor.
The House companion bill has 50 cosponsors and a broad list of endorsements from medical associations and more than one hundred Rhode Island physicians. "We clearly have very strong support in Rhode Island," said MPP's Mirken, "both within the legislature and among all of the established medical organizations, including both the state medical society and the state nurses' association." Still, he said, the state health department had come out against the bills. "That's a concern, but there is still some time before it gets to the governor's desk. Then perhaps the voters of Rhode Island can help educate him like they've educated the lawmakers."
"Of all the states we're working, the ones with momentum are Rhode Island and New York," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "Those are the best shots the way things look right now," he told DRCNet. And with forward movement in Connecticut as well, here's hoping for the Northeastern trifecta.