Rhode Island has become the 11th state to legalize medical marijuana after the House voted by a wide margin to override a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R). The legislature had passed the bill last year, only to see it vetoed by Carcieri. The state Senate voted to override the veto in June, but the House did not act until Tuesday.
Rhode Island becomes the first state to enact a medical marijuana law since the Supreme Court decided in Gonzalez v. Raich in June that federal officials may arrest and prosecute medical marijuana users and providers even where state law permits it. It is also the first state to overcome a gubernatorial veto to pass a medical marijuana law. It is only the third state -- after Hawaii and Vermont -- to approve medical marijuana through the legislative process. In the eight other states where it is permitted, it was legalized through popular initiatives.
Tuesday's vote came just before the start of the 2006 legislative session, allowing the law to go into effect immediately. But that does not mean medical marijuana is legal just yet. The law gives the state 90 days to draft and enact regulations. That clock began ticking Tuesday.
Under the new law, patients with qualifying medical conditions will be able to possess up to 2 ½ ounces of prepared marijuana or grow up to 12 plants or have designated care-givers do so. Once patients have a doctor's approval to use the plant, they will be required to register with the state and obtain a photo ID card.
Although of opponents of medical marijuana mobilized to thwart the veto override, in the end the vote was a lopsided 59-13. That was a margin similar to that of the Senate override vote, 28-6, signaling strong support for the bill despite Gov. Carcieri's opposition.
The bill was shepherded through the legislature by Rep. Thomas Slater (D-Providence) and Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), and is known as the Edward O. Hawkins Medical Marijuana Act, named for a nephew of Perry's who died of AIDS two years ago. "I am very grateful on behalf of my family and my nephew," Perry told reporters after the override vote Tuesday.
"It's been a long wait and a lot of work, but this law will grant mercy and relief to the sick and suffering. Finally Rhode Island will stop denying sick people a proven means of relief from their pain," Rep. Slater, D-Providence, who suffers from cancer.
Groups like the Brown and University of Rhode Island Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapters and AIDS project Rhode Island joined forces with patients and professional groups such as the Rhode Island Nurses Association and the Rhode Island Medical Society under the umbrella of the Rhode Island Patients Advocacy Coalition to educate lawmakers like Slater and Perry. Joined by the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, which brought in major funding and more, proponents were able to win success this week.
"Brown SSDP student Nathaniel Lepp and I applied for a grant from MPP to build a grassroots coalition in the fall of 2003," said URI graduate and current SSDP communications director Tom Angell. "Students at Brown had organized a medical marijuana symposium earlier that spring, and we brought in legislators who had previously introduced legislation that hadn't gone anywhere. We introduced them to medical professionals, drug policy advocates, as well as students and patients who wanted to see a medical marijuana bill become law," he told DRCNet.
"My mom has Multiple Sclerosis," Angell continued. "Her doctor recommended she try marijuana, but until now she has been absolutely terrified of the legal ramifications. Obviously, the passage of this bill is a great relief for my entire family."
Angell wasn't the only one enjoying the fruits of his efforts. "We're excited about this," said Chris Butler of AIDS Project Rhode Island. "We think it will bring some relief to some of our clients. We've been working on the bill for about 2 ½ years now with other folks in the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, so we're also relieved," he told DRCNet.
"Today's vote proves yet again that the movement to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest is unstoppable," said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "Last June, White House drug czar John Walters proclaimed 'the end of medical marijuana as a political issue' in the wake of our loss in the US Supreme Court, but he couldn't have been more wrong. The public, the medical community, and Rhode Island legislators agree that patients with cancer, AIDS or multiple sclerosis should not be arrested for using medical marijuana on the advice of their physicians. We will continue to roll back the government's war on the sick and dying, and the White House drug czar can't stop us any more than he can make water flow uphill."
Final passage means more than just that Rhode Islanders seeking relief will be able to use marijuana, said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "This is hugely significant because it is the first state to pass medical marijuana since Raich and it was the first ever to override a veto -- and it wasn't even close," he told DRCNet. "I notice that the drug czar's office didn't even put out a statement after the vote."
In fact, the only Office of National Drug Control Policy comment came from one of Walters' underlings, Tom Riley, who responded to a request for reaction from the Providence Journal. Rhode Island legislators were "misguided and out of touch" on the dangers of marijuana, Riley said, adding that federal law barring marijuana made the vote "largely symbolic."
But federal officials had earlier conceded they were unlikely to be arresting many medical marijuana patients, a point Mirken alluded to Wednesday. "State medical marijuana laws are not symbolic," he said, "but this vote does have a huge symbolic value. This shows that medical marijuana is a train that will not be stopped. The public gets it, and legislators across the country are beginning to get it, too."
Gov. Carcieri still hasn't gotten it, even after being slapped down at the statehouse. In a statement issued after the vote, he reiterated his opposition to the new law, saying it would leave users open to federal prosecution and that it provided no mechanism for patients to obtain marijuana. "Users will be forced to purchase marijuana in the illegal street market, putting them at risk and complicating the difficult jobs that our law enforcement personnel must do every day," Carcieri complained.
Carcieri and other opponents of medical marijuana will have an opportunity to try to derail the program next year because the law contains a sunset provision causing it to expire on June 30, 2007 if not re-approved. Not to worry, said MPP's Mirken. "We anticipate that the law will be renewed before then," he said. "You have to make compromises like the sunset provision sometimes to keep people happy, and it is another hurdle we will have to go over, but given that in every state that has a medical marijuana law the law is more popular now than when enacted, that's not a big worry."
Butler, too, is looking ahead. "The Health Department has 90 days to implement regulations, and we are looking forward to that happening sooner rather than later. We also want to make sure the law is implemented effectively and not abused, so there is no reason for the legislature to come back and decide not to continue it."
While Rhode Islanders are now turning their attention to ensuring that the state Health Department gets its rules and regulations up and running, MPP and the broader medical marijuana movement are setting their sights elsewhere. "The hope is that this will cause a lot of legislators around the country who were spooked by the Raich decision to see that states can still act to protect patients," Mirken said. "This vote should help dispel that misunderstanding and allow us to move forward."
MPP will be eyeing New York state, where the Raich decision caused key backers to waver last year, Mirken said. The group will also be active in Wisconsin and Michigan, while the Drug Policy Alliance is working with local activists to advance bills in Alabama and New Jersey. In Massachusetts, a medical marijuana bill is also moving.
A movement for patients rights that originated in the Pacific West and extends to Montana and Colorado in the Rockies has now gained new ground in the New England states. With states in the Midwest and South now in the sights, the pincers are closing.