The House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted Wednesday night to legalize the production, distribution and use of marijuana as a palliative for the chronically ill, reviving Connecticut’s role in a national debate. The final vote was 96-51.

Seventeen Republicans joined 79 Democrats in support, while 17 Democrats joined 34 Republicans in opposition. If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor as proponents expect, Connecticut will join the ranks of states with a softening attitude toward the dangers and beneficial uses of marijuana.

Barry Williams

At left, Barry Williams, who has Parkinson’s, watching Rep. Gerald Fox.

Debate circled around notions of mercy, limits of medicine and fears of abuse, but mainly questions of practicality: How can the state regulate the sale of a controlled substance whose production and sale are expressly prohibited by federal law?

“That is the big dilemma,” said Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, a physician who vouches for the efficacy of cannabis, yet opposes creating a conflict with federal law. “One is definitely torn.”

The bill would establish guidelines and a bureaucracy to oversee what now is an act of civil disobedience, one that some opponents say they would readily do if needed: find and supply pot for a sick or dying loved one, if drugs offered no relief.

Such stories were told publicly during a public hearing, privately in conversations with legislators and, in a few cases, on the floor of the House.

Rep. Chris Lyddy, D-Newtown, said his father, unable to eat or take oral drugs while dying of colon cancer, was urged by medical professionals to try pot.

“He tried it once, with a bit of reluctance,” Lyddy said. But the his father was uncomfortable with breaking the law and refused a second time, a reluctance that Lyddy expects would have been overcome by legalization.

Sitting in the House shortly after the debate began at 4:04 p.m. was Barry Williams, who testified at a public hearing that marijuana provided rare relief for his advancing Parkinson’s disease, which forced his retirement as a lobbyist. His story was featured in The Mirror.

Advocates, knowing that a personal story can cut to the center of complicated issues, wore stickers with Williams’ picture and the message, “Pass Barry’s Bill.”

Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who had supported medical cannabis in other years, said previous debates were too focused on the personal, not the difficulties of constructing a law that worked.

“We feel it emotionally. We want to help them,” Klarides said. “This breaks my heart every year we do this.”

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine. Last year, Connecticut decriminalized small amounts of pot.

But much of the debate concerned questions from opponents posed to Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and lead sponsor of the bill, about how the legal pot trade would work.

Marijuana cannot be readily inserted into the existing system of prescription drugs, whose production, efficacy and purity are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists.

“How do we know what’s in the stuff?” asked House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “How do we know what the appropriate mixture is?”

The legislation would allow physicians to “certify” a need for the drug, an approximation of prescribing it. The written certification would be available only to persons suffering from certain chronic diseases.

The diseases listed in the bill are cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable spasticity arising from spinal damage.

The Department of Consumer Protection could add diseases to the list based on the approval of a review panel.

The cannabis would be grown indoors in secure facilities and sold at dispensaries, not in drugstores. The Department of Consumer Protection would license and oversee growers and sellers. No more than 10 growers and 10 dispensaries would be licensed.

Elements of the bill reflect an attitude that marijuana is not seen as just another medicinal drug: It could be certified for use only by patients who are at least 18 years old and a resident of Connecticut. Inmates in correctional institutions are not eligible.

Other conditions not placed on prescription drugs: The marijuana could not be consumed in a moving vehicle, on university property, in the workplace,  in the presence of a minor or in any public place.

Advocates say the bill was drawn based on the mistakes and successes of other states.

Few opponents rose to object to the concept of providing marijuana to the chronically ill. Instead, they objected to the details — or lack of details.

“It’s far too murky for me,” said Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton. “I’m sorry I can’t support this.”

“How are the police supposed to determine what is a medical use and what is not?” asked Rep. John Shaban, R-Redding.

After nearly six hours, mainly of Republicans posing questions, Rep. Linda Gentile, D-Derby, stood, looked across toward the GOP side of the aisle and described losing her sister-in-law and mother to cancer in eight months.

“And I watched them suffer horribly,” Gentile said. “I can tell you during that time I would have done anything possible to relieve their pain and suffering.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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