Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Medical marijuana bill in Rell's hand

HARTFORD - For the last five years, state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, and legislative allies from both parties have fought to legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Though they have had more success this year than any prior, the controversial bill's fate now rests solely with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who admits she struggles with mixed feelings about the measure.
The bill, which cleared the House 89-58 on May 23, was approved 23-13 in the Senate late Friday night.
"The difference between now and then is public awareness," Bacchiochi said, referring to the 2003 House debate when she first revealed she had risked arrest to purchase marijuana to help a loved one. "As the public becomes more familiar with this, so does the legislature. And as they become more familiar, they become more comfortable with it."

Over the past five years, Bacchiochi has become the leader for both Republicans and Democrats who want to see the drug legalized for palliative purposes.

The Somers lawmaker has recounted many times, both in one-on-one conversations and on the House floor, how she purchased marijuana illegally in the late 1980s to help her former husband, who had developed terminal bone cancer.

Facing chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and surgery to remove a spinal tumor, he suffered intense pain and debilitating nausea until he died, according to Bacchiochi, who said smoking marijuana offered him at least a respite from that pain.

The House rejected a medicinal marijuana bill in 2003. Similar measures died from inaction on the House calendar in 2004 and 2005 - the latter after first receiving approval in the Senate. No bill was introduced last year as advocates regrouped and built support among lawmakers in preparation for 2007.

Bacchiochi added that advocates also were helped because the marijuana debate never devolved into a partisan struggle. Each side of the question attracted Democrats and Republicans. "I appreciate the leadership allowing the whole chamber to make a decision" without pressure to form a consensus within the party, she said.

The legislation on Rell's desk would allow a doctor to certify that an adult patient has a debilitating condition that could benefit from using marijuana.

Patients and their caregivers then would have to register with the Department of Consumer Protection. Afterward, they could cultivate up to four plants, none of which could exceed 4 feet in height.

Connecticut actually enacted its first law to allow medical marijuana use in 1981, authorizing doctors to prescribe its use to relieve nausea associated with chemotherapy and eye pressure from glaucoma.

But the state law is unworkable because, under federal statute, physicians who prescribe marijuana can be sent to prison.

Rell told Capitol reporters two weeks ago that she is torn.
On one hand, she said, when a loved one is suffering, "you would do anything in your power to alleviate that pain."

But the governor also said she understands those who fear legalization would send a dangerous message - especially to youth - that drug use, in general, isn't dangerous. The bill would have been better, Rell said, had it been limited only to terminally ill patients.

"The governor still has mixed feelings about this," Rell spokesman Christopher Cooper said over the weekend. "She'll be reviewing the final language very closely."

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