Thursday, April 3, 2008


PROVIDENCE -- A year after passing permanent medical marijuana
legislation, lawmakers say it's time to establish a safe and legal
means for patients to obtain the drug.

Right now, qualifying patients may grow marijuana, but since the
state provides no access to the drug, they often resort to buying it
on the street.

Legislators and doctors call that scenario an unwanted weak link in
an otherwise successful law. They've heard too many stories like that
of Warwick's Buddy Coolen, 29, a medical marijuana user who three
months ago was robbed at gunpoint by the drug dealer while trying to
buy marijuana to treat his debilitating gastrointestinal condition.

Now Rep. Thomas C. Slater and Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, both of
Providence, who sponsored the permanent medical marijuana law,
propose expanding its scope to create licensed marijuana
dispensaries, or "compassion centers," which would legally grow and
distribute the drug at affordable prices to the 359 patients who
partake of the state's program.

The centers would be regulated by the Health Department and would
also offer education services to eligible patients and their caregivers.

Testifying at a Senate hearing on the subject last night, Dr. Todd
Handel, a physiatrist and pain-management specialist, said such
clinics would resolve a host of obstacles that currently accompany
the use of medical marijuana in this state.

"The problem now is, how are my patients supposed to get it? If I
write a prescription for Oxycontin, they're not going to the street
to buy it, they're going to a pharmacy," he noted. "... But when it
comes to marijuana I can't tell them how much to take, how to use it
and where they can get it because it's illegal for them to get it. So
I'm saying to them, 'you have a diagnosis that the state allows for
but it's illegal for you to obtain it and I can't tell you how to do it.'"

Handel was one of several doctors and almost a half dozen patients
who testified in support of the proposed centers. Together, they
agreed that the state's medical marijuana program has been invaluable
in helping relieve the chronic pain and nausea that accompanies
cancer, AIDS and other illnesses. But growing enough healthy plants
for regular dosages, or finding reliable places to buy the drug, can
prove challenging, they admitted.

It's a set of circumstances Slater and Perry say already weakened
patients should not have to grapple with.

Slater said he omitted the creation of compassion centers from the
original proposal which passed as a temporary measure in 2006 and was
written into permanent law last year because he felt it was important
to pass the legislation incrementally, to allow lawmakers to warm up
to the idea. "But I think now is the time to help protect those
patients who really need it and give them a safe place to get it,"
Slater said yesterday.

Nationwide, the use of medical marijuana has increased in recent
years. At least 12 states now have laws allowing use of the drug for
medical purposes. But according to the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy
Coalition, only New Mexico and California have laws governing
dispensaries: California's centers are not regulated by the state and
need not be nonprofit agencies, and so far New Mexico has not yet
licensed any clinics, said Jesse Stout, executive director of the coalition.

Rhode Island's compassion center proposal is not without its critics,
including the governor and others who say Rhode Island shouldn't be
passing laws that ignore federal law, which still bans marijuana usage.

"To continue to flout the federal law and to start dealerships or
whatever you want to call them is just irresponsible," said Rep.
Nicholas Gorham, R-Coventry, who has in the past opposed marijuana
legislation. Gorham pointed to the spate of federal raids on
California dispensaries in recent years as examples of the problems
Rhode Island could face if it creates such centers.

Health Department spokeswoman Helen Drew voiced similar concerns,
saying the department does not want to jeopardize the program in its
current format.

Furthermore, she said, the Health Department "has no expertise in
licensing these types of facilities" and no expertise in establishing
regulations. "We feel it moves us way beyond the scope of public
health," she said.

A Carcieri spokesman said the governor continues to oppose any
medical marijuana legislation, having twice vetoed the measure.

Slater acknowledged yesterday that the compassion-center proposal
will encounter obstacles. "But it's a start," he said, noting that it
took almost a decade to garner enough support to pass the medical
marijuana legislation.

The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services took no action on
the bill yesterday. A hearing on an identical House bill is expected
sometime next week.

Patient Buddy Coolen believes that passage can't come soon enough to
safeguard the state's sickest residents, to avoid other violent
attacks such as the one against him. "Hopefully we can prevent
innocent patients from getting into a situation that could turn
deadly," he said.

Newshawk: The Source for Marijuana News
Pubdate: Thu, 3 Apr 2008
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2008 The Providence Journal Company
Author: Cynthia Needham, Journal State House Bureau
Cited: Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)

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