Sometimes, public policy is deeply personal

The sight of the burly, bearded Barry Williams zipping around the State Capitol complex on a Segway was a vivid first-year memory for Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, who arrived in Hartford in 2005.

“All of a sudden, you disappeared,” Hewett told Williams. “And I didn’t know what happened to you.”

Williams told Hewett and other members of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that advancing Parkinson’s disease forced his retirement as a lobbyist in 2006, removing him from the community that is the Connecticut General Assembly.


Susan Williams is overcome as her husband, Barry, testifies.

He came back, hunched over a walker, to lobby one more bill. It is a measure that would legalize the use of marijuana as a palliative for certain chronic diseases, such as Parkinson’s.

Experts would testify for and against the bill throughout a long public hearing, but medical marijuana is one of the issues that bring out personal stories from familiar faces, whether legislators or lobbyists.

Some of the stories were told in the public hearing or in written testimony. Others were shared privately with legislators, stories of dying relatives whose only relief came from a joint.

“I think it’s always about the story, the story that connects to people,” said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven. “The story cuts right through.”

Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, has been telling the story of her late husband for a decade. Only marijuana brought him relief from the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation for the bone cancer that would kill him, she said.

“Over those 10 years, I have shared my personal story, a story of both pain and hope,” she said.

Peter C. Smith, a lobbyist and former legislator, said no expert testimony, pro or con, can outweigh Bacchiochi telling her colleagues that nothing else worked in her husband’s case.

“Penny’s example is direct and real,” Smith said.

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Windsor, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said legislators are attentive to the public testimony, but he’d be less than honest if he said the stories of people like Barry Williams and Penny Bacchiochi don’t carry more weight.

Legislators heard about science and law.

The American Medical Association has taken a wait-and-see attitude on medical marijuana, saying it awaits more research.

Dr. Mark L. Kraus, a specialist in addiction medicine, echoed the AMA in testimony submitted on behalf of the Connecticut State Medical Society. He opposed the bill, saying “medical marijuana” — and the quotation marks are his — should be subject to review by the Food and Drug Administration, tested for efficacy and purity.

No marijuana can meet that standard, nor is there sufficient evidence to prove or disapprove the effectiveness of pot as a palliative, Kraus said.

“The practice of medicine must be evidence-based; all medical interventions should be justified by high-quality data,” he said.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a longtime crusader against marijuana, said Connecticut would be in conflict with federal law and the Obama administration if it legalized the production and sale of marijuana.

Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, offered the novel legal theory that a vote for the bill might violate federal law, and the governor might be risking arrest if he signed the legislation.

Boucher questioned the motives of the proponents, who include NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“The ultimate goal is for legalization,” she said.

Small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized last year.

But then came the personal stories. There was written testimony from Gloria Blick, an 88-year-old Stamford woman who says two puffs of pot before bed have saved her from surgery for glaucoma after her medicated eyedrops ceased to keep the disease in check.

Boucher ran into a personal story while delivering her testimony. It came from a political ally on the issue, Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury.

His wife is suffering severe, prolonged pain from shoulder surgery. The prescribed painkillers are no match for the pain, and the side-effects include nausea.

What would Boucher tell his wife?

Lindsey Beck, 27, came with her story about being debilitated from narcotics prescribed for cancer and Crohn’s disease. Using marijuana, she has stopped taken dangerous opiates.

Smith, the legislator-turned-lobbyist, stayed at the public hearing past 7 p.m., waiting for his name to be called as a witness. He had his own story to tell, nothing as dramatic as Bacchiochi’s.

On July 11, 2008, his 21-year-old son, Mike, was diagnosed with lymphoma. The treatment was five rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, which would come with severe pain and nausea. His son is fine today.

But Smith said he and his wife considered all the possibilities at the time, including obtaining marijuana, if necessary.

“There we were, a couple of 50-year-old parents wondering where to buy marijuana for our 21-year-old son,” Smith said.

The memory stayed with him. He questioned why any parent or patient would have to break the law to find relief for a child or themselves.

Barry Williams’ testimony came early.

Sitting with his wife, Susan, a lobbyist for a teachers union, he described how his world has shrunk with Parkinson’s. His voice broke as he explained to Hewett why he disappeared from the Capitol after his sense of balance deteriorated to the point where he no longer could use the Segway.

“Recently, I’ve reached the stage where I’ll be shuffling along, and I lose my balance and fall for no reason,” he said.

On the advice of a doctor, he tried marijuana. He found it offered temporary respite from the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

“I ask you to please give me, and people like me, the chance to feel disease-free and normal,” Williams said.

“If it takes my vote to get it for you,” Hewett told him, “you’re going to have it.”