Senate joins House in passing medical marijuana bill

Hartford — After nearly 10 hours of debate, the state Senate voted 21 to 13 early Saturday morning to pass legislation that would legalize marijuana in Connecticut for medical purposes.

The bill, which passed in the House last week 96 to 51 and now awaits the signature of the governor, permits only pharmacists to dispense marijuana from a set number of approved “dispensaries,” and only licensed, in-state producers to grow it.

Only adult patients who suffer from one of a dozen specific debilitating conditions would be eligible to obtain the drug, and no more than a one-month supply. The state Department of Consumer Protection would oversee the new, strict regulatory framework that would take effect Oct. 1.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws.

State senators took up the bill around 4:30 p.m., and didn’t take a final vote until 2:30 a.m. The vote tally was generally along party lines.

Democratic Sens. Andrea Stillman of Waterford and Andrew Maynard of Stonington voted for the bill. Edith Prague of Columbia and Eileen Daily of Westbrook were absent by the early morning for medical reasons.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced in a statement that he looks forward to signing the bill.

“This legislation is about accomplishing one objective: providing relief to those with severe medical illnesses.”

The governor continued: “We don’t want Connecticut to follow the path pursued by some other states, which essentially would legalize marijuana for anyone willing to find the right doctor and get the right prescription.

“Under this proposal, however, the Department of Consumer Protection will be able to carefully regulate and monitor the medicinal use of this drug in order to avoid the problems encountered in some other states.”

The bill’s lead opponent, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said she feared that medical marijuana would lead to increased recreational use and become a stepping stone in Connecticut to full legalization.

She held the floor for more than six hours, delivering an on-off, filibuster-type monologue on the health, mental and societal dangers of the drug. At times the senator read snippets of news articles from around the world about marijuana.

She and other GOP lawmakers proposed a total seven amendments to the bill, all voted down.

“The abuse inherent in the bill cannot be prevented,” Boucher said.“Reclassifying marijuana as medicine does provide a false impression that it is benign.”

But other senators said they were comfortable with the bill’s safeguards against abuse.

Stillman said she opposed a 2007 bill that involved home-grown medical marijuana, but would vote “yea” on this one.

“I think there are far better controls written in this bill,” she said. “The dispensaries themselves will be closely watched and there can only be so many, so you’re not going to see a proliferation of them.”

Stillman said she has received multiple inquiries from constituents who are in pain and interested in marijuana as a palliative. The bill “will make their lives more comfortable and less painful,” she said.

Under the bill, individuals must gain a doctor’s permission and have one of the following conditions to be eligible for marijuana: 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.

Patients could obtain up to a one-month supply of marijuana, an amount determined by future guidelines to be developed by an eight-member board of physicians.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he would vote for the bill based on the moving public testimony from individuals who suffer from painful and life-limiting ailments who have found relief only through marijuana.

“As I look out into this circle, I don’t see just the state seal and the red rug, I see the dozens and dozens of people who came and testified before our committee for hours and hours,” Kissel said. “I would not wish any of those illnesses on the worst of my enemies ever, and how these men and women, young and old, can keep a positive attitude in the face of these challenges is beyond me.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, noted how Connecticut passed a law in 1981 that was to allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to treat glaucoma and the side effects of chemotherapy.

But pharmacies never stocked the drug. The problem, he said, was “the inability to procure marijuana in the same way we procure any other prescription drug.”

“With the bill we have today, we finally make the link back to 1981,” Williams said.

However, Boucher and other bill opponents noted how marijuana remains illegal under federal law. They cited the recent opinion from Connecticut U.S. Attorney David Fein that state legalization wouldn’t necessarily protect marijuana dispensaries and growers from federal law enforcement raids and prosecution.

“Should we pass a bill that violates federal law?,” said Sen. Len Fasano, R-East Haven. “I would suggest we lack the authority."

The bill’s proponents disagreed on that point.

“It's clearly not a violation of federal law for Connecticut not to outlaw something” Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull, said. “To say that we are violating an oath or facilitating an illegal act is simply not correct."

“This bill helps our constituents who need the help," he added.

State lawmakers approved medical marijuana legislation in 2007 that was later vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell. That bill called for patients to grow marijuana at home.

j.reindl@theday.com

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