Rhode Trip 

Rhode Trip 
Posted by CN Staff on July 07, 2005 at 20:12:18 PT
By Ian Donnis
Source: Boston Phoenix
Rhode Island -- How a small, heavily Catholic state became poised to legalize medical marijuana — and what it means for the rest of us.Coming less than 24 hours after the US Supreme Court supported the federal government’s right to prosecute sick people who use marijuana to control their discomfort, the Rhode Island Senate’s emphatic June 7 vote in support of medical marijuana may have come as a surprise — to everyone but Rhode Islanders.
On the surface, the tremendous 34-2 bipartisan support shown for the medical-marijuana bill was curious. After all, Rhode Island is a heavily Catholic state where, despite an independent streak and an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly, most legislators are social conservatives, and the popular Republican governor, Donald L. Carcieri, strongly opposes the very concept. Then again, in the smallest of states, where everyone, it seems, knows someone who might benefit from medical marijuana to treat cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or some other debilitating illness, the bill’s passage makes perfect sense. Take the case of State Representative Thomas C. Slater (D-Providence), a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps Reserves, who describes himself as a strong opponent of recreational marijuana use and looks as if he would feel at home in a VFW Hall. Although he has supported medical marijuana in the past, Slater, 64, became a highly visible proponent — the lead sponsor in the House this session — after studying up on the subject. The issue touches close to home for him, since he has been treated for cancer, and the disease has affected a number of people in his family. While Slater says he would not use medical marijuana should it become legal (and recognizes that its main benefit may be psychological for some people), his advocacy — in which he steadily framed the issue as one of compassion — steeled the resolve of some wavering colleagues. With the widespread incidence of cancer, AIDS, and other illnesses, he says, "people are well aware of how devastating these diseases can be. People out there in the community have a friend who is sick, have a relative who is sick, and they want relief for that person." Adds Representative Raymond J. Sullivan Jr. (D-Coventry), "When you sit across the table from someone who tells you they only have seven, eight, or nine months to live, and say that this is the only thing that can help them get through the day — whether it be eating or relaxing their muscles, whatever issue that might be — I don’t know how we can look that person in the eye and tell them that we’re going to treat them like a criminal. It just doesn’t make sense to me. This is not about legalizing marijuana. It’s not about increasing taxes. It’s about easing the suffering of people who are in the last stage of their life or dealing with serious illnesses."Of course, there’s no single explanation for how the issue of medical marijuana, which had foundered in the Rhode Island General Assembly since the late ’90s, suddenly attracted such a groundswell of broad legislative support across partisan lines. True, the bill’s success is due, at least in part, to the campaign waged year after year by proponents such as Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence). The main Senate sponsor, Perry offered poignant testimony of how her nephew, Edward O. Hawkins, suffered before dying from AIDS at age 41 last year. But while Perry is an unabashed liberal, support in recent years from groups such as the Rhode Island Medical Society and the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, as well as from AIDS Project Rhode Island and the local chapter of the ACLU, reflects just how mainstream medical marijuana has become — something borne out by referendums and a variety of polls in conservative states. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a Washington, DC–based advocacy group, also focused a beefed-up political campaign on Rhode Island, using a lobbyist, as well as phone banks and television commercials targeting Carcieri’s stated opposition to medical marijuana.Ultimately, though, the greatest factor seems to lie on the flip side of Rhode Island’s distinctive civic intimacy, which has fostered the Ocean State’s justly deserved reputation for political corruption. Put another way, in this tiny state of just over one million people, the personal tends to become political a lot faster than it does anywhere else.So when related legislation passed the last hurdle in the Senate on June 28 — quickly, without discussion, and on a 33-1 vote — it was as though it were the blandest and most pedestrian of bills, in spite of Governor Carcieri’s veto the very next day.Not Fade AwayRhode Island’s medical-marijuana bill would protect doctors, patients, and caregivers from state prosecution if a state-certified physician finds that marijuana might aid a Rhode Island resident suffering from a "chronic or debilitating" medical condition. It does not outline a source for the marijuana, meaning that patients with state-issued registration cards would be expected to obtain it illegally, although they would be able to possess up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of "usable marijuana" at a time. In an amendment that bolstered legislative support, the initiative would cease on June 30, 2007, unless legislators voted to continue it.None of that appeases opponents, who see the US Supreme Court’s June 6 ruling in Gonzalez v. Raich, allowing the federal government to ban medical marijuana, as definitive. In a statement issued that same day, John Walters, President Bush’s drug czar, said the decision "marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue. Our nation has the highest standards and most sophisticated institutions in the world for determining the safety and effectiveness of medication. Our national medical system relies on proven scientific research, not popular opinion. To date, science and research have not determined that smoking a crude plant is safe or effective. We have a responsibility to ensure that the medicine Americans receive from their doctors is effective, safe, and free from the pro-drug politics that are being promoted under the guise of medicine."Proponents, however — who point to numerous studies in support of medical marijuana’s benefits — hail what’s happening in Rhode Island as a clear rebuke to federal assertions that the states’ legalization of medical marijuana has been rendered moot. As the MPP pointed out in a statement last week, "The recent US Supreme Court decision in Gonzalez v. Raich did not overturn the right of states to pass medical marijuana laws, and no authority has ever declared state medical marijuana laws unconstitutional." Asked why the Office of National Drug Control Policy dispatched two representatives, John Horton and Patrick Royal, to lobby Rhode Island legislators against overriding Carcieri’s veto, Bruce Mirken, the MPP’s director of communications, says, "It says they realize they’re about be caught lying.... They’ve been pretty decisively proven wrong, and if it [medical marijuana] becomes law in Rhode Island, it will be a fairly large national story, and I think they’re desperate to avoid that."Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says the governor’s opposition to medical marijuana stems from his belief that insufficient controls exist for the production and distribution of the drug, as well as the related concern that "illegal marijuana use could proliferate throughout the state, and that marijuana could become much more accessible on the streets." The Rhode Island State Police and the chief judge of the Rhode Island Family Court also oppose the measure. Referring to the MPP-coordinated lobbying effort, Neal says, "I think there’s certainly a strategy to pick off states one by one — to select a state, to drive the debate there, and to use that as the thin end of the wedge to force a broader national conversation on the subject."The governor has also pointed to the Supreme Court’s ruling in explaining his opposition to legalizing medical marijuana in Rhode Island. Critics, however, say Carcieri was less concerned about diverging from national mandates when he allowed a measure legalizing prescription-drug imports from Canada to become law in 2004, despite a warning from the US Food and Drug Administration that federal law would trump it. For many, the case for medical marijuana also resonates with the larger question of how illegal drugs remain widely available despite the billions of tax dollars spent by the federal government in the war on drugs, especially with regard to youth.Suggestions that medical marijuana will make the drug more available to children are "a load of bull," says Rhonda O’Donnell, a 42-year-old Warwick woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994. "I think the federal government should have a lot more on their minds and their plates, like terrorism, rather than coming after people who use it for a medical purpose." Although the former nurse remains unsure whether marijuana would alleviate the stiffness and burning pain in her legs, she holds out hope that others would benefit. O’Donnell, who appears in a television ad urging public support for medical marijuana, attributes heightened legislative backing this time around to feedback from constituents. "I do believe it was the people [driving change], which is how the system is supposed to work," she says.Democrats expect White House lobbying to have little effect on legislative support for the medical-marijuana legislation. In fact, the Senate overrode Carcieri’s veto, 28-6, on June 30, and support is likely to remain similarly strong when the House takes up the measure, probably within a few weeks.Although the governor and other critics express concern about increased illegal marijuana use, most observers consider it unlikely that legalizing medical marijuana would bring a tide of users to Rhode Island (the introduction of medical marijuana in Maine about five years ago seems to have had little adverse effect).And while state-sanctioned patients would have to obtain their marijuana from an illegal source, they appear unlikely to face federal prosecution. Anthony Pettigrew, the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s spokesman in New England, doesn’t even recognize the concept of medical marijuana because, he says, "It is not medicine. It has no proven medical value." Federal studies show that more teens enter treatment centers each year for marijuana, he notes, than for all other drugs combined. That said, Pettigrew adds, "The DEA has never targeted the sick and dying, but rather criminals [involved] in drug cultivation and trafficking. We’ll target major trafficking organizations and take them apart."Rhode Islanders have a fairly tolerant attitude toward marijuana use. The revelation a few years ago that US Senator Lincoln Chafee had smoked pot as a young man caused little more than a blip. A recent study by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found a high frequency of marijuana use in the southern part of the state. In the wake of the Gonzalez decision, even the Republican-friendly editorial page of the Providence Journal called on Congress to enact a national law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana.Although 10 states have legalized medical marijuana — Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — moving similar initiatives forward remains a challenge even in a place with as liberal a reputation as Massachusetts (all but two of these states, Vermont and Hawaii, enacted their laws through ballot initiatives). A bill introduced by Senator Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) got a good response during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in early June, says Whitney A. Taylor, executive director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts. Still, the outlook remains far from clear. For an advocate like Taylor, who saw how marijuana enabled her cancer-ridden stepfather to interact with his family over dinner during the period before his death, the ongoing disparity between public and political support is vexing. The challenge, she says, remains: "How do we implement laws and get it to work within the system?"The MPP is pursuing organizing efforts in several other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and to a lesser extent, Illinois and Minnesota. Medical marijuana may remain an uphill battle, but it’s far from settled. "I think this issue is not going to die," says Marc Genest, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. "I think this issue is like gay rights, where advocates, by continuing to bring the matter up, they surmount all obstacles and eventually become accepted."The Mouse That RoaredWhat are the lessons of Rhode Island? Advocates invariably return to the importance of grassroots organizing and the message of compassion. Mirken touts the need to work closely with people in the community, "and you have to be sure to be thoughtful and factual, and prepared to deal with, frankly, the nonsense that comes from the other side. I don’t think there’s any magic formula here. I think it helps to have the truth on your side, but you have to do your homework."The larger message, Mirken says, "is that the public is several steps ahead of Congress and the White House, at least in terms of being willing to look at drug policy in a pragmatic, common-sense way. A lot of people who don’t like drug abuse and who would like to see the misuse of drugs curbed are willing to look at things with an open mind, and say that if someone with cancer or MS can get a little bit of relief from marijuana, there’s no reason that they ought to be casualties in the war on drugs." Source: Boston Phoenix (MA) Author: Ian DonnisPublished: July 8 - 14, 2005Copyright: 2005 Phoenix Media Communications GroupContact: letters Website: Related Articles & Web Site:Marijuana Policy Project Way Off on Pot Facts Veto Voted Down in Senate Overrides Medical Marijuana Veto 
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Comment #1 posted by jose melendez on July 14, 2005 at 04:48:46 PT
liars exposed
" . . . studies have found that marijuana use among teenagers in states with medical marijuana laws actually went down." The notion that Carcieri "is protecting people from federal prosecution by subjecting them to state prosecution is ridiculous. It sounds like what comes from the Drug Czar's office. The governor, Mirkin said, "has chosen to take his orders from (White House strategist) Karl Rove rather than from the Rhode Island Medical Society or the Rhode Island Nurse's Association.Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal confirmed Wednesday that two representatives of the Drug Czar's office, John Horton, assistant deputy director for state and local affairs, and Patrick Royal of the public affairs office met with Director of Policy Tim Costa on Tuesday. Neal said they told Costa that federal law on the possession and use of marijuana pre-empts state law and to share information on the medical use of marijuana. He said they wanted to assure the governor's staff that marijuana has not been proven to be safe and effective and that approved alternatives do exist.
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