Revised medical marijuana bill gets support at hearing

Hartford - Proponents of legalizing marijuana for medical reasons are backing revised legislation this year with stronger guards against recreational use.

Under the latest bill, only pharmacists could dispense marijuana and only licensed, in-state producers could grow it. The state Department of Consumer Protection would serve as the regulatory agency.

The bill also specifies the medical conditions that can be treated with a doctor's prescription for medical marijuana. These include cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and nervous system disorders.

Erik Williams, executive director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the bill now before the legislature is the best-written of its kind to emerge in any state.

Williams said the proposed system would be vastly different from that in California, where the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries and questionable patients attract federal raids. "That's an industry that essentially has very little oversight or regulation," he said.

But the additional restrictions failed Wednesday to win over many longtime opponents of medical marijuana during a public hearing on the bill before the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said legalization as proposed in the bill would lead to more substance abuse and crime and would send a negative message to children, especially because medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Boucher fears medical marijuana would become a legislative stepping stone to proponents' "ultimate goal" of full legalization.

However, Williams contends that legalization is not his group's goal this year. "While I personally would love to see marijuana legalized across-the-board and regulated like alcohol, it's not something we have on our agenda to push," he said.

Boucher has been the leading opponent of any marijuana legalization measures. Yet she told her colleague Wednesday that she has softened her stance and now supports medical marijuana for terminal patients in a hospice setting.

State Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, voiced concerns about passing a medical legalization bill while marijuana use remains illegal under federal law. "We're being asked to willfully - if we vote for this - to violate a federal law," he said.

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

Connecticut's General Assembly has considered various medical marijuana proposals in the past. A bill last year cleared several committees but did not come to a vote. A 2007 bill passed both the House and Senate and was later vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he supports the concept of medical marijuana but has yet to speak about this year's legislation.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, praised the new bill during Wednesday's hearing for incorporating many of the changes he wanted in last year's proposal as guards against abuse.

New London Rep. Ernest Hewett, a Democrat, said that if marijuana works to alleviate pain for someone with a serious condition, that would be preferable to the longtime use of intense, habit-forming drugs such as OxyContin.

"By God, if you want medical marijuana and it takes my vote to get it to you - you're gonna have it," Hewett said, eliciting applause from some in the audience.

Several patients urged lawmakers to pass the bill. Kathy O'Callaghan of Scotland said marijuana alleviates some of her multiple sclerosis symptoms. Without the drug, she said, she has difficulty getting around and can barely accomplish her therapist's strength and balancing exercises. Legalization would allow her to buy the drug without taking the risks she does now.

"I do not use medical marijuana recreationally - it's strictly for medical purposes," O'Callaghan said.

Lindsey Beck of Voluntown told reporters that marijuana allowed her to cut down substantially on the amount of medication she needs to manage her Crohn's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. The side effects of the old pills made her bedridden, she said.

The bill would restrict medical marijuana from the workplace, on school or university grounds, at public parks or beaches or in the presence of minors.

Approved patients could not possess more than a month's supply of the drug. Proponents said they are not seeking to require insurance coverage of marijuana.

j.reindl@theday.com

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