With strong poll support, medical marijuana gets another hearing

The Judiciary Committee will hear testimony Monday on the near-perennial proposal to allow people with debilitating conditions to use marijuana legally.

Could this be the year it becomes law?

“The chances look really good,” said Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, who has long been one of the legislature’s leading supporters of allowing marijuana to be used for palliative purposes.

med mar

One bill made it through the legislature in 2007, before Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed it. This year, the concept comes with gubernatorial backing. One of the two medical marijuana bills on Monday’s agenda comes from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.

And according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday, the concept also has the backing of a wide swath of the public. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they supported the use of medical marijuana. Poll director Douglas Schwartz called it a near-consensus and said it’s rare to see that level of support for any issue.

But Bacchiochi isn’t counting on an easy time for the proposal.

“I never take anything for granted like that,” she said. “The people who are working against the medical marijuana bill are very experienced and strong legislators.”

One staunch opponent, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, pointed to the harms of smoked marijuana and questioned how the bill could be considered to serve medical purposes.

Boucher also noted that medical groups such as the American Medical Association and the Connecticut State Medical Society do not embrace the concept. Both groups say marijuana should remain a Class I narcotic until more research is completed. Similarly, the American Cancer Society supports more research into the benefits of cannabinoids, but does not advocate the use of inhaled marijuana or its legalization.

“I think there’s a different motivation,” Boucher said of the proposals. “I don’t think they’re really trying to help sick people. It appears to be a national effort to try to normalize what marijuana is to make it appear safe.”

Boucher said she has been approached by constituents who applaud her efforts, including a woman who plans to testify Monday about the death of her son, who smoked marijuana. Hearings on previous medical marijuana proposals have drawn opposition from parents whose children died of drug overdoses and warnings that making marijuana legal in some cases could send the message that it is not harmful.

Arguments about the message the legislation sends to children are important and emotional pleas, Bacchiochi said.

“I don’t agree with it, obviously,” she said. “If I thought passing this would increase drug abuse among children, I would never support it.”

And she and others who support medical marijuana have their own personal stories. Bacchiochi has spoken about her husband, who found relief from marijuana as he was dying of cancer. Other people with illnesses have testified about their own experiences finding relief from pain from the drug when prescription medications, even synthetic marijuana, did not work.

The proposal has support from Judiciary Committee co-chairman Rep. Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, who said he thinks it has a chance of passing.

“I think it’s becoming more accepted, but at the same time, I think we have more to talk about because more states do have it,” he said. “More states have had it for longer periods, so we can hopefully learn something from their experiences.”

Fifteen states have some sort of law allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, Maryland allows medical purposes to be used as a defense in marijuana possession cases, but does not give patients a legal means to obtain it.

Most of the 15 states have patient registries, which can protect patients from prosecution but don’t provide a way to get the drug. Fewer than half allow dispensaries where patients can get marijuana.

The two proposed bill on the Judiciary Committee’s agenda require patients and their primary caregivers to register with the Department of Consumer Protection. The bills would allow patients to possess up to a certain level of marijuana without penalty if they have been diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition, received written certification from a physician, and previously tried prescription drugs to address their symptoms or had a doctor determine it was not in his or her best interest to try them.

The governor’s bill would allow a patient to have up to four marijuana plants that are up to four feet high and one ounce of usable marijuana. The other bill would limit a patient to an amount reasonably necessary for uninterrupted availability for three months, as determined by the Department of Consumer Protection. That bill also calls for the state to license producers of marijuana for medical purposes, while the governor’s bill does not.

Both bills require the marijuana to be grown in a secure indoor facility and would make it a misdemeanor to make false representations related to medical marijuana use.

Neither calls for a doctor to prescribe marijuana, although doctors would have a role in certifying that a patient can legally qualify for it.

The Quinnipiac Poll released this week asked respondents their views of legislation to allow adults to legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes if their doctor prescribes it. It received widespread support, with more than 70 percent support from every group in the survey.

Bacchiochi said the numbers did not surprise her because previous polls have shown similar levels of support, but she said it could help the measure this year. Bacchiochi, who has advocated for medical marijuana in other states for a national marijuana advocacy group, said she has taken a step back from the issue this year to focus on the budget, but she said she expects other legislators and the governor’s office to push the bill.

Boucher predicted that the poll would have showed less support for medical marijuana if people knew the bill would let people grow it in their homes, rather than purchasing it in drug stores.

“Once they find that out, it just changes dramatically,” she said.

Fox said it’s not clear what effect the poll will have.

“I try not to let polls govern any of what the committee does so I don’t know what impact it will have,” Fox said. “I think for some time now there’s been something that legislators have at least been willing to consider and I think that’s still the case.”

The Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on several other marijuana-related bills Monday, including proposals from the Malloy administration that would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana an infraction and allow someone convicted of possessing less than four ounces of marijuana or drug paraphernalia to be given house arrest rather than imprisonment.