State House passes legalization of medical marijuana

Hartford — A bill that would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for patients suffering from certain conditions passed the House of Representatives late Wednesday night and now heads to the Senate.

The legislation would create a regulatory framework under the state Department of Consumer Protection for the dispensing, growing and smoking of medical marijuana.

Only pharmacists could dispense the marijuana and only licensed, in-state producers could grow it. Patients could possess no more than a one-month marijuana supply, and would have to get their prescriptions renewed each year.

The 11:15 p.m. vote tally was 96 in favor of the bill and 51 against it.

Southeastern Connecticut lawmakers voting "yea" were Democratic Reps. Ernest Hewett of New London, Ed Jutila of East Lyme, Melissa Riley of Norwich, Betsy Ritter of Waterford, Tom Reynolds of Ledyard, Diana Urban of Stonington, Elissa Wright of Groton and Kevin Ryan of Montville.

The "no" votes from the area were Democratic Reps. Ted Moukawsher of Groton and Steve Mikutel of Griswold.

Republican Rep. Chris Coutu of Norwich was absent. Coutu returned last Tuesday night from out-of-state military training but did not visit the Capitol for Wednesday's House session, preferring to spend time with family, he said.

The General Assembly approved a medical marijuana bill in 2007 that eventually was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell. That bill allowed patients to grow their marijuana at home.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has indicated that he would sign this year's bill. The law would take effect Oct. 1.

Sixteen states, including Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, have passed medical marijuana laws.

The House took up the bill shortly after 4 p.m., and opponents monopolized most of the afternoon and evening debate.

"I don't want Connecticut to end up like California, where there's a dispensary on every corner and people are getting marijuana for a hang nail," declared Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield.

To be eligible for medical marijuana, a patient would have to have one of the following conditions: cancer; glaucoma, HIV or AIDS; Parkinson's disease; multiple sclerosis; epilepsy; post traumatic stress disorder; Crohn's disease; cachexia wasting syndrome; or damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord. All minors, non-state residents and prison inmates would be forbidden from using it.

Opponents also voiced concerns that Connecticut, in passing a medical marijuana bill, would be condoning activities that are illegal under federal laws — the use, distribution and production of marijuana.

"Today, use of marijuana is a federal crime," said Rep. Brian Becker, D-West Hartford. "Nothing we do as a state legislature can change that."

He and other opponents cited a letter of opinion this week from Connecticut U.S. Attorney David Fein asserting that federal law enforcement officials could swoop in and prosecute marijuana dispensaries and growers, even if they are legal under state law.

Property owners, landlords and financiers who "facilitate the actions of the [marijuana] licensees" could also be found in violation of federal laws, according to Fein.

"This is a big deal because the constitution of the United States says the federal law is the supreme," said John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, who voted no. "I took an oath as you did as a state legislator to support the state constitution … and I can't renounce that.'

He recalled the times when states have defied federal laws, such as on civil rights. Connecticut shouldn't join that club, he said. "Nullification is not unknown in this country, but it's rarely seen outside the Deep South," Hetherington said.

However, state Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, an attorney, referenced past Justice Department memoranda that declared how federal authorities should not waste resources by going after cancer patients and those with other serious illnesses who are compliant with their state's medical-marijuana laws.

One legislator who works as a doctor, Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, said that he feels torn on the question of legalizing medical marijuana.

On one hand, Srinivasan said he wants to alleviate the suffering of patients who can't find relief with conventional medicines. But he doesn't believe the state should pass legislation condoning behaviors that violate federal law.

"A physician needs to be aware of what is going to happen to him or her at a federal level, what is going to happen to his or her licensing when he prescribes this. And that to me is the dilemma," Srinivasan said.

Mikutel said he was voting no over fears that medical marijuana would lead to more drug abuse overall, particularly among young people. He also is unconvinced about marijuana's purported medical and palliative benefits. In addition, there is the federal supremacy issue.

"The violation of a federal law for me is a big stop sign and I just can't bring myself to go through it," Mikutel said.

The bill would prohibit medical marijuana from being used at work or in any moving vehicle, including a city bus or school bus. It also bans use on the grounds of any school or college, and within the direct line of sight of anyone under age 18.

Qualified patients would be required to pay $25 and register with the Department of Consumer Protection. The department would determine the number of dispensary pharmacists and marijuana producers. Producers must be in-state and pay a licensing fee of at least $25,000.

The bill establishes an eight-member Board of Physicians to set protocols for determining how much marijuana is reasonable for a one-month supply.

The board also could recommend additional illnesses for the list of approved conditions.

Employers, schools and landlords would be prohibited from taking actions against medical marijuana users, such as firing or evicting them for using the drug.

The bill would make it a Class C or Class A misdemeanor to lie to a law enforcement officer about using or distributing marijuana for medical use.

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates a revenue gain of about $270,000 next fiscal year from medical-marijuana fees, largely offset by costs of about $210,000 for new drug control agents and equipment.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, a volunteer expulsion officer for Norwalk schools, said he was opposed to another marijuana bill in Connecticut after the legislature voted just last year to decriminalize small amounts of recreational marijuana.

"Ever since the law decriminalizing marijuana took effect … the amount of [school disciplinary] cases involving the possession and use of marijuana has gone through the roof," Cafero said. "I've talked to teachers and principals and administrators, and they actually have called it an epidemic."

"Now we're going to open up a whole other area of the use of marijuana," he said.

j.reindl@theday.com

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POLL

Would you ever consider using marijuana for medical purposes?

Yes, I see no problem with medical marijuana.

57%

Yes, if I were in extreme pain and nothing else worked.

10%

Yes, if my doctor thought it was the right course to take.

13%

No, I don't agree with using mind-altering drugs.

5%

No, I'd be afraid of potential side effects.

2%

No, I think marijuana should be illegal in all circumstances.

13%

Number of votes: 1818