As RI Prepares for First Clinic Questions Abound
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As RI Prepares for First Clinic Questions Abound
Posted by CN Staff on September 26, 2009 at 19:23:02 PT
By Cynthia Needham, Journal State House Bureau
Source: Providence Journal
Providence, R.I. -- Sometime next year, somewhere in Rhode Island, the state’s first marijuana dispensary will hold a deliberately quiet opening and patients in the medical marijuana program will buy their first dose.Depending on whom you ask, that dispensary can’t come soon enough, or it’s a crisis waiting to happen. For people who depend on marijuana to ease the pain of chronic or debilitating illnesses, it will be a safe, reliable place to obtain the drug.
But there’s a long list of unanswered questions that have others, particularly those in law enforcement, worried: Who’s going to run the center? Where will it be located? What security precautions will be taken to make sure the center is not robbed?Ellen and Stuart Smith say it’s imperative that these issues are resolved, to ensure a smooth opening of a clinic where Ellen can buy the only drug that relieves her vice-like pain from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a degenerative tissue disorder.The crippling condition that displaces her joints is getting progressively worse and now often requires her to use a wheelchair. Allergies prevent her from taking almost all pain medications.“Without this, she’d be dead,” said Stuart Smith, her husband of 36 years. “She’s had 17 surgeries and this is all that allows her to get out of bed in the morning.”The Smiths don’t take kindly to marijuana jokes –– quips suggesting that the law serves drug dealers and aging hippies. They are neither. She is a 59-year-old retired schoolteacher and he, a 62-year-old former Department of Children, Youth & Families employee. They are middle-class parents of four who came to marijuana as a last, awkward resort when doctors had nothing else to offer.But they are also fed up. They’ve struggled to grow the plant, watched crops wilt and several times been victimized by thieves. Earlier this month, local teenagers in the middle of the night sneaked onto their wooded property in Scituate and snipped away two-thirds of their lush plants.A marijuana dispensary, they say, would relieve those headaches and give Ellen Smith and the 953 other patients in the state’s program a safe place to purchase the drug.“This is what’s saving my life right now,” Smith said, her voice calm despite her obvious pain. “I don’t know how long that life is but right now this is getting me quality I wouldn’t have. I have four kids and grandchildren someday and I want to see them. This is giving me that.”Sixteen miles away at Providence police headquarters, Lt. Michael E. Correia, head of the narcotics bureau, awaits the arrival of Rhode Island’s first medical marijuana dispensary with growing unease.Since the legislature legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes four years ago, police departments around Rhode Island have seen firsthand the problems that come with it.In one instance, a patient authorized for medical marijuana use was selling the drug out of his house, along with opiates and steroids. In another, a cardholder was so inexperienced about how to grow marijuana under intense indoor heat lamps, he started a fire in the basement of his Olneyville home.“There’s already a tremendous potential for abuse with the law,” Correia said. Adding storefront dispensaries that grow and sell the drug “is just doubling that potential for trouble” by creating a new target for criminals interested in stealing marijuana.The department’s detective commander agrees. “Supporters of the legislation are going to say that’s not our problem. That’s not what the law is meant to do,” said Maj. Thomas F. Oates III. “But these centers are going to be someone’s problem and, really, it will fall to us.”The General Assembly gave final passage to the medical marijuana law in 2006 and made it permanent in 2007, both times over vetoes from Governor Carcieri.The law allows patients with debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis, to possess up to 12 marijuana plants or the equivalent of 2.5 ounces of marijuana at any one time. They may also select up to two “caregivers,” to provide it for them, so long as those caregivers have no felony drug convictions.What it didn’t do was establish how patients and caregivers were supposed to obtain the drug.Almost immediately, the law’s supporters, led by the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, began pushing for state-regulated marijuana dispensaries, known as compassion centers, so patients wouldn’t be forced to grow it or buy it on the street.While 12 other states allow marijuana use for medical reasons, only New Mexico and California have legalized the sale of marijuana to qualifying patients, though California’s centers are not regulated by the state.Rhode Island lawmakers were initially wary of dispensaries, in part because of the clash between state law and federal law, which still makes marijuana use illegal. The Bush administration had raided several such clinics in California, sending the message that state statutes would be ignored.But the Obama administration curtailed such raids, easing some of those concerns.On Smith Hill, the quickly fading opposition had more to do with the efforts of Providence Rep. Thomas C. Slater, the state legislator behind the original medical marijuana bill. Slater was losing a long battle with breast cancer, a condition which made him eligible for the medical marijuana program. (He enrolled, but he said he never used the drug.)His impassioned speech on the House floor in May about the ravages of pain prompted a standing ovation and left several representatives near tears.Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed compassion center bills that just a year earlier had died in committee. Then they quickly overrode Carcieri’s veto, and the bills became law in a session when nearly every other major social initiative sputtered to a stop.The law requires the Health Department to prepare for the first of up to three dispensaries; in August, it released a 22-page draft of regulations that outline what potential candidates need to know to apply to run the first center.Once department officials select an operator sometime early next year, they will assume an oversight role, regulating the facility much as they do pharmacies and nursing homes.Health Department Director Dr. David Gifford acknowledges the state is in unfamiliar territory.“We’re going to do the best we can with our staff, but there isn’t much to go on,” he said, noting the lack of forerunners in other states. Even New Mexico’s experience offers little guidance because its one medical marijuana center is a delivery service, not a storefront clinic.The police and patients say part of the problem is that the Assembly passed a law that was in some ways vague. It doesn’t specify how the police are to be involved, or require any professional expertise of those selected to run the center, although they can’t have felony records. It also doesn’t address how much they can possess, and what is an appropriate dose for a drug whose strength can vary widely.And it didn’t provide any funding for the Health Department to get the program up and running.At an information session in August for those interested in opening a center, Charles Alexandre, the Health Department official tasked to oversee the clinics, in addition to his other responsibilities, could not answer many of the questions he was asked.“I don’t think the Health Department really understands what it’s getting into,” said Dr. Todd E. Handel, a Pawtucket physician who specializes in pain management and has recommended marijuana usage to several of his patients. “This is something that’s really been forced down their throats by the legislature and I don’t think the department really wants to be involved, or has the funding to do this.”Gifford admits there are challenges, but says the department oversees a range of businesses, from nail salons to x-ray clinics. Once an operator is selected, health officials will work with them to make sure proper security and management procedures are established. “There’s no facility, even ones that are much more high risk to people’s health where we have people monitoring every day, not even brain surgery,” Gifford said.But police departments are deeply worried by that paucity of details. They question how an operator can be trusted to sell marijuana only to those authorized to buy it and how they will keep their supplies of marijuana safe from theft. They’re already frustrated by their inability to obtain the names of patients and caregivers, which has led to investigations of people they later learned were legally growing or using the drug. When the centers open, it’s unclear whether police will have jurisdiction over them. “In a perfect society, we have this place where marijuana is going to be grown and provided to patients and caregivers,” said State Police Capt. David Neill. “But unfortunately you always have a criminal element to think about. People are going to look at this center — where there will be a lot of money involved — and ask ‘How can I get in?’ ”Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, who voted in favor of compassion centers this spring, now agrees that the law needs work. He is considering drafting legislation that would give the police a strong role in the monitoring of compassion centers.For Handel, the Pawtucket pain doctor, the bigger risk may be the potential lack of medical oversight. The statute does not require the centers to have any affiliation with medical professionals. By contrast, New Mexico requires marijuana dispensaries to have a health-care professional on their boards. “If someone is going to supply medication to a patient, they need to be able to monitor what the benefits are as well as the adverse effects,” Handel said.At a pharmacy, he notes, professionals track how much medicine a patient is given, and are available to warn about possible side effects. “The way this is set up there is no physician and no pharmacist monitoring intake,” Handel said. “There is no one keeping an eye out for abuse.”Ellen Smith, the Scituate marijuana patient, agrees there is the potential for problems.“We need to get this right,” she said. “We are being watched by all the other states that might be considering this. If we don’t set a good example with the first center, we could be blowing it, not just for ourselves but for the entire country.”Smith gets visibly angry when she talks about those looking to abuse the marijuana statute. “We need to find a way to get rid of these people because there’s a whole bunch of us who are not well and desperately need this law,” she says.Two days after the Smiths sat down to discuss the importance of the dispensaries, they say they got another reminder of why they’re needed. They were robbed. Again.Teenagers cut away four plants that were lush and close to harvest, despite the Smiths’ elaborate laser alarm system and the fact that Stuart Smith had been sleeping on the porch to ward off intruders.The Smiths got lucky. They were able to identify the thieves and got pieces of the plants back for Ellen to process into oil that she takes once a day.But when you’re 59 and you’ve lost much of the life you knew and the teaching job you loved to illness, there’s only so much you can take.“This is just one more example of why we need these centers,” Smith said. “We feel terrorized, we feel frightened and we don’t deserve to live like this.”With reports from W. Zachary MalinowskiMedical marijuana by the numbers:954.Patients in Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program764.Caregivers authorized to grow or procure marijuana for patients1.Patient registration cards revoked because of a marijuana-related arrest1.Caregiver cards revoked because of a marijuana-related arrestSource: R.I. Department of HealthSource: Providence Journal, The (RI)Author:   Cynthia Needham, Journal State House Bureau Published: Sunday, September 27, 2009Copyright: 2009 The Providence Journal CompanyContact: letters projo.comWebsite: Articles:R.I. Finds Little Guidance for MMJ Dispensaries To Set Rules To Govern Compassion Centers
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Comment #1 posted by tintala on September 26, 2009 at 20:55:36 PT:
GREAT NEWS IN CALI -thought this was pertinent
In a major victory for pot advocates, the California Supreme Court has refused to review a landmark appellate court ruling protecting the right of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to collectively grow marijuana.
Rural sheriff's departments in California may have to find a new pastime to replace bullying medical marijuana growers. In a major victory for pot advocates, the California Supreme Court -- right around harvest time! -- has refused to review a landmark appellate court ruling protecting the right of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to collectively grow weed.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a nationwide medical marijuana advocacy group, filed a May 2006 lawsuit on behalf David Williams, 56, and half a dozen other collective members after the Butte County Sheriff's Department conducted a warrantless search of Williams' home in 2005. The officers forced Williams to uproot more than two dozen plants, threatening him with arrest and prosecution if he didn't comply.Williams was incorrectly told by Deputy Jacob Hancock that his collectively cultivated marijuana was illegal. California state law, in fact, does allow for collective cultivation.Butte County Sheriff/Coroner Perry Reniff and his department were attempting to impose a de facto ban on medical marijuana patient collectives, according to ASA."By refusing to review this case, the California Supreme Court sends a strong message that local law enforcement must uphold the medical marijuana laws of the state and not competing federal laws," said Joe Elford, ASA chief counsel, who litigated the case for Williams. According to the July 2009 appellate court ruling, the "deputy was acting under color of California law, not federal law. Accordingly, the propriety of his conduct is measured by California law."The court went further, stating that to deny medical marijuana patients protection from warrantless intrusions and seizures by law enforcement "would surely shock the sensibilities of the voters who approved [Proposition 215].The appellate court ruling upheld Butte County Superior Court Judge Barbara Roberts' ruling from September 2007, in which she stated that seriously ill patients cultivating marijuana collectively "should not be required to risk criminal penalties and the stress and expense of a criminal trial in order to assert their rights. Roberts' ruling also rejected Butte County's policy of requiring all members to physically participate in the cultivation, thereby allowing collective members to "contribute financially" rather than with sweat equity.The Butte County Sheriff's Department was already known for its zealous anti-marijuana enforcement. The first medical marijuana supplier in the state to be prosecuted in federal court after the passage of Proposition 215 was originally arrested by Butte County officers. Chico resident Bryan Epis received a 10-year sentence in federal court in 2002 for medical marijuana cultivation after Butte County officers raided his home in 1997 and seized 458 plants.Observers of the medical marijuana scene say the court decision could have repercussions statewide in other (predominantly rural) counties with pot-phobic local law enforcement. Elford said he has received hundreds of complaints from medical marijuana patients about local anti-pot cops seizing their drugs on the logic that "we'll take it from you and let the courts sort it out."Repeated reports of problematic behavior by Butte County law enforcement, as well as other police agencies throughout the state, resulted in the filing of the Williams lawsuit, according to ASA."After uncovering Butte County's de facto ban on medical marijuana patient collectives, ASA decided to pursue the case to show that collectives and cooperatives are protected under state law," said ASA media liaison Kris Hermes."In addition to protecting patients' rights to collectively cultivate, the Court has reaffirmed that medical marijuana patients enjoy the same constitutional rights as everyone else," said Elford, "including the ability to file civil rights actions when those rights are violated."
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