Med-pot struggles in New England

Rhode IslandRhode IslandNEW YORK CITY? This month, Rhode Island could become the 11th American state to legalize medical marijuana. The state Senate voted 28-6 on June 30 to override Gov. Donald Carcieri’s veto of a medical-marijuana bill, and the House, which earlier passed the bill by a 52-10 margin, is expected to vote on the override within two weeks.
The bill would allow patients with a doctor’s recommendation and a state-issued photo ID to grow 12 plants or possess 2.5 ounces of cannabis. It would expire in June 2007 unless the legislature renews it. “It’s a compassionate issue. It’s an issue for the sick and dying, and we need to help,” says Rep. Thomas Slater, the bill’s House sponsor. “The people of this state have responded very well.” One legislator, he relates, got 50 phone calls after he voted for the bill?all in support, and more than he’d ever received on any other issue.

In his June 29 veto message, Gov. Carcieri said the bill would “increase the availability of marijuana on the streets of our state.”

“It’s illegal,” a spokesperson for the governor adds. “We have other drugs that can do the same things.”

Though similar efforts in New York and Connecticut failed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s June 6 decision in Gonzales v. Raich, the Northeast is emerging as the second bloc of states where medical marijuana is making significant progress. If the Slater bill goes through, Rhode Island would become the third of the region’s 11 states to legalize it, after Maine in 1999 (by initiative) and Vermont in 2004. Washington, DC voters approved a medical-pot initiative in 1998, but Congress nullified it. Maryland enacted a medical-necessity defense law in 2003, reducing the penalty for possession by patients to a $100 fine. And legislatures in Massachusetts and New Hampshire also considered medical-marijuana measures this year.

“Rhode Island is having this debate knowing that they are running up against federal law, and they don’t seem to be put off by it,” says Allen St. Pierre, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Any US state that enacts a medical-marijuana law has to deal with the federal law that says marijuana has no valid medical use. The more open a state’s system is for certifying and supplying patients, the more it exposes cultivators and caregivers to federal felony charges. Though the Raich ruling did not strike down state medical-pot laws? it was decided on the relatively narrow grounds of whether the Constitution’s interstate-commerce clause could justify federal jurisdiction over homegrown medicine? it was a powerful symbol that the door of federal law remains locked to pot patients.

The decision’s impact on state legislation hit most strongly in New York, where state Sen. Vincent Leibell, the Republican sponsor of a bill to have the state license cultivators to grow cannabis for the terminally ill, backed off immediately. He told the press that legalizing medical marijuana would be “setting up our citizens to violate federal law.”

That effectively killed the bill for the year. Leibell’s decision to sponsor it, announced in May, had been a major breakthrough for medical-marijuana supporters in New York. In the state’s divided and notoriously dysfunctional legislature, nothing gets anywhere in the Republican-majority upper house without GOP backing.

Leibell, says his counsel, Bob Farley, has asked state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for an opinion on whether an effective state medical-pot measure is legally feasible. Farley insists that the senator still wants to enact a bill, but “it does no good to pass a law that no one can use.”

If the bill had passed, Gov. George Pataki was expected to veto it.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, the bill’s Democratic sponsor, plans to introduce another measure next year, even if federal law renders it largely symbolic. “State laws are a potent way to send a message to the President, Congress, and the courts,” he said in a statement after the Raich decision. A Siena Research Institute poll taken after the ruling found that New Yorkers supported letting sick people use marijuana under a doctor’s supervision by a margin of 76 to 17 percent.

In Connecticut, the state Senate narrowly passed a medical-marijuana bill on June 4, but the House, which approved a similar bill last year, did not act on it before the session ended four days later.

Two pot-law proposals are pending in Massachusetts. One would exempt medical-marijuana users from arrest if they had a written doctor’s recommendation; the other would reduce the penalty for any possession of less than an ounce from a misdemeanor to a $100 fine. The legislature will probably consider them later this year, says Whitney Taylor of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts.

As in New York, the vagaries of local politics are key factors. Neither bill would have gotten anywhere, says Taylor, under former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who blocked all medical-marijuana legislation before his resignation last year (and his indictment for perjury last month). Taylor says she crafted the medical bill more narrowly than she wanted to so it would not have to go through the Senate health committee, whose chair is a staunch foe of medical pot?although last November, 69 percent of the voters in his district backed a non-binding “public policy question” instructing him to vote to legalize medical use.

Voters in 28 of Massachusetts’ 200 legislative districts have approved similar ballot resolutions urging pot decriminalization.

The most radical bill came in New Hampshire, where Reps. Timothy Robertson and Charles Weed introduced a measure to delete all references to marijuana from the state’s criminal code?thus making ganja as legal as tomatoes, with no taxation or age limits. The state General Court defeated it 295-60 in March, but as Marijuana Policy Project spokesperson Krissy Oechslin notes, “it’s pretty impressive that 60 people came out for such a radical bill.” The legislature also rejected a medical-marijuana bill.

Medical pot’s progress in the Northeast fits the issue’s peculiarly regional politics, in which eight of the 13 Western states have legalized it, but none in the South or Midwest has even come close. The Christian right’s moralistic totalitarianism has never gained a foothold here, and New England contains the country’s largest collection of liberal rural areas. Vermont and Maine were among the most Republican states in the nation until the 1960s, but the national GOP’s turn to the radical right and the gay and hippie influx have moved them to the left. New Hampshire, the most conservative state in New England, has a strong libertarian streak.

Despite the federal ban, medical-marijuana supporters insist that state laws can be more than merely symbolic. More than 90 percent of US pot busts are made by state and local police, notes MPP legislative analyst Karen O’Keefe, so “the fewer jurisdictions that can prosecute patients, the better.” “Ninety-nine percent of the prosecutions in this state are local. One percent are federal. We’re trying to protect that 99 percent,” says Thomas Slater. “I think it’s very important that we give those people peace of mind.”

“It’s ridiculous in a nation that claims to be compassionate,” TV talk-show host Montel Williams, who uses marijuana for extreme neuralgic pain, said at a press conference outside New York’s City Hall on June 20. “Not one of my doctors has told me not to use it, and five of them have recommended that I should.”

“If they think we’re done and the war is over, it’s not,” added Angel McClary Raich, one of the two patients in the Supreme Court case.Rhode Island

  • Steven Wishnia is author of The Cannabis Companion and Exit 25 Utopia.
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