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Rhode Island follows through on medical marijuana

When it comes to the legalization of medical marijuana in Rhode Island, the question has generally been when — not if — it would happen.

Sure, Republican governor Donald L. Carcieri, whose vetoes have withstood the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in the past, could cite a litany of concerns, from distribution to the fear that legalizing medical marijuana will make it far more available to children. But by resoundingly overriding Carcieri’s veto in a 59-13 vote, the Rhode Island House of Representatives on Tuesday embraced the compassionate theme long sounded by proponents.

The vote, capped by enthusiastic applause from supporters, makes Rhode Island the 11th state to legalize medical marijuana — and the first to do so since the US Supreme Court ruled last June in Gonzales v. Raich that the federal government can prosecute sick people who use the drug to ease their discomfort.

Showing a distinct lack of anxiety about crossing the feds, the Rhode Island Senate voted in support of medical marijuana less than 24 hours after the high court’s decision last summer. And while such legislative support might seem unusual in a place with a strong strain of social conservatism, it reflects the intimacy of a state where everyone, it seems, knows someone who would like to use medical marijuana to better cope with such debilitating illnesses as cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

"Two years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been an issue with me," said Representative Thomas C. Slater (D-Providence), the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House. But after watching a brother, an uncle, and his father die from cancer, the representative — who has himself has been treated for the disease — sees things very differently. Speaking with reporters before Tuesday’s vote, he noted, "There are a lot of other people out there who have friends and family who have been sick."

A three-fifths majority was needed in the 75-member House to override Carcieri’s veto, and the outcome never seemed in doubt as the chamber took up the matter before officially starting the new legislative session. Opposition came mostly from Democratic rivals of House Speaker William J. Murphy and from Republicans, like House Minority Leader Robert Watson, a medical-marijuana proponent, who voted with the governor in partisan solidarity.

In a statement, Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal warned, "This bill appears to violate federal law. Consequently, it will subject Rhode Islanders to prosecution by the federal government. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that state laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana do not trump federal laws criminalizing marijuana. The consequence is that Rhode Islanders who rely on state law can still be prosecuted criminally by the federal government."

But as Anthony Pettigrew, the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s New England spokesman, told me last year, "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." (See "Rhode Trip," News and Features, July 8, 2005.)

Rob Kampia, executive director of the Washington, DC–based Marijuana Policy Project, which aggressively lobbied for the Rhode Island law, hailed the vote, saying, "[It] proves yet again that the movement to protect medical-marijuana patients from arrest is unstoppable. Last June, White House drug czar John Walters proclaimed ‘the end of medical marijuana as a political issue’ . . . but he couldn’t have been more wrong. . . . We will continue to roll back the government’s war on the sick and the dying, and the White House drug czar can’t stop us any more than he can make water flow uphill."

As for Massachusetts, the public seems to be in favor of medical marijuana — all five non-binding medical-marijuana initiatives on ballots across the state in 2004 passed by at least a two-to-one margin. There are two medical-marijuana bills now sitting in committee in both the House and the Senate. And if one of them does wind up on Mitt Romney’s desk, it’s likely the legislature will be pushing to override him as well.

Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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