Feature: Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Bill Passes House, But Faces Threatened Veto 6/24/05

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Rhode Island is one giant step closer to enacting a medical marijuana law this year after the House passed a medical marijuana bill Wednesday afternoon, by a 52-10 vote. The Senate previously passed a similar measure (SB 710) by a lopsided margin of 34-2. The bill, HB 6052, now goes back to the Senate for a procedural vote.

Under the bill, patients with certain specified illnesses -- cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and glaucoma -- or conditions would be protected from arrest or prosecution if they have a recommendation from a doctor and have registered with the state health department. The bill provides similar protections for providers and doctors. Patients or designated providers could possess up to 12 plants or 2 ½ pounds of usable marijuana.

But despite broad public and professional association support for medical marijuana in Rhode Island and despite the legislature's overwhelming position in favor of making the herb available to sick people, Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri has vowed to veto the measure. A Marijuana Policy Project-sponsored advertising campaign last week urging people to call Carcieri and urge him to relent generated hundreds of calls, but he has shown no indication so far of changing his mind.

It may not matter. According to the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Thomas Slater (D-Providence), legislators have the votes to override a veto. Slater told the Pawtucket Times the governor "should take note of that and let it become law without his signature." And with the Rhode Island Medical Society, the Rhode Island Nurses Association, and AIDS Project Rhode Island endorsing the measure, legislators should be able to find sufficient backbone to stand firm. A Zogby poll from last year showing 69% of Rhode Islands favor medical marijuana may also help lawmakers' resolve.

While public clamor for the bill was critical, another reason for the strong legislative support was concessions made by the bill's sponsors as it moved toward votes in the House. The legislation now contains a sunset provision that would repeal it on June 30, 2007 absent a new vote by lawmakers. Registration cards must include a photograph, along with name, address, date of birth, and other identifying information -- early versions of the bill had no photograph requirement. And while the list of people registered will be confidential, sponsors assented to a provision requiring the state to inform state and local police about the number of registered patients in each locality.

The final version of the bill also says that caregivers cannot have a felony drug conviction. And it restricts medical marijuana grows to "indoor facilities," a sop to concerns that plants grown outdoors might be accessible to others.

"Governor Carcieri should listen to Rhode Island's medical community and the state's voters and reconsider his threat to veto this sensible, humane bill," said Neal Levine, MPP director of state policies. "The bill, as amended, addresses almost all of his concerns. He should show some compassion and sign this bill."

Officially designated the Edward O. Hawkins/Thomas Slater Medical Marijuana Act, the bill memorializes Hawkins, the nephew of Senate lead sponsor Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), who died of AIDS complications last year. He told Perry he was too frightened of being arrested or kicked out of his nursing home to use medical marijuana to relieve pain and wasting. Rep. Slater, who suffers from cancer, as noted earlier is the House bill's sponsor.

"I am very proud of my colleagues in the legislature today for passing this act by such an overwhelming margin," said Rep. Slater. "I call on Governor Carcieri to sign the medical marijuana Bill into law."

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Issue #392 -- 6/24/05

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