State Allows Drug Use For Suffering Patients
A year after making medical marijuana legal for patients to use, Rhode Island lawmakers say it's time to establish a safe and legal means for them to obtain the drug.
Right now, qualifying patients may grow marijuana, but they can't legally buy it. As a result, they often resort to buying it on the street.
Some legislators and doctors call that scenario an unwanted weak link in an otherwise successful law. They've heard too many stories like that of Buddy Coolen, 29, a medical marijuana user who three months ago was robbed at gunpoint by a drug dealer while trying to buy marijuana to treat his debilitating gastrointestinal condition.
Now state Rep. Thomas Slater and state Sen. Rhoda Perry, Providence Democrats who sponsored the permanent medical marijuana law, propose expanding its scope to create licensed marijuana dispensaries.
These "compassion centers," would legally grow and distribute the drug at affordable prices for the 359 patients who now are in the state's program. The centers would be regulated by the state health department and would offer education services to patients and their caregivers.
Nationwide, the use of medical marijuana has increased in recent years.
At least 12 states now have laws allowing its use. 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 New Mexico has not yet licensed any clinics, said Jesse Stout, executive director of the Rhode Island coalition.
Rhode Island's compassion center proposal comes with powerful critics, including the governor and others who say the state shouldn't be passing laws that ignore federal law, which still bans marijuana usage.
But supporters contend the centers are crucial. Testifying at a recent state senate hearing, Dr. Todd Handel, a pain-management specialist, said such clinics would resolve a host of obstacles that currently accompany the use of medical marijuana in Rhode Island.
"The problem now is, how are my patients supposed to get it? If I write a prescription for ( the powerful painkiller ) Oxycontin, they're not going to the street to buy it, they're going to a pharmacy," he said. "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.
They all said the state's medical marijuana program has been invaluable in helping relieve the chronic pain and nausea that accompanies cancer, AIDS and other illnesses.
GOP state Rep. Nicholas Gorham says the state should not be in the pot-selling business.
"To continue to flout the federal law and to start dealerships or whatever you want to call them is just irresponsible," said Gorham, who has long been an opponent of marijuana legislation.
He pointed to a 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 officials voiced similar concerns, and said they have no expertise in licensing such facilities or establishing regulations.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri said he continues to oppose any medical marijuana legislation, having twice vetoed other such measures.
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Pubdate: Mon, 07 Apr 2008
Source: Concord Monitor (NH)
Copyright: 2008 Monitor Publishing Company
Author: Cynthia Needham