The state Senate voted 21-13 early Saturday to give final legislative approval to a bill that will make Connecticut the 17th state to legalize marijuana as a palliative for the chronically ill.
The bill, which passed 96-51 in the House last week, now heads to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat whose election in 2010 removed the last impediment to the bill becoming law. His Republican predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, vetoed a legalization bill in 2007.
“This legislation is about accomplishing one objective: providing relief to those with severe medical illnesses. I look forward to signing the bill when it reaches my desk,” said Malloy, who was a prosecutor in New York before beginning a legal and political career in Connecticut.
But first the legislation had to survive a nearly 10-hour debate dominated by an impassioned argument against legalization by its most vocal critic, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who remained on her feet for much of it, peppering colleagues with statistics and stories.
She spoke to a nearly empty chamber for much of the debate, offering anecdotes about the risks of marijuana.
“How can we call it medical?” she said, citing research showing marijuana use dangerously raises heart rates, suppresses the immune system and has been linked to everything from cognitive disabilities to infertility. “It still boggles the mind.”
Supporters of the bill say it is a well-crafted measure that limits access to legal pot to chronically ill adults whose doctors must certify in writing they can benefit from its use.
“I too voted against and opposed other versions of the medical marijuana bill,” said Sen. President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., right before the 2:34 a.m vote.
But, he said, this bill earned his support because it does not take the “wild, wild west approach” other states have and it will adequately control the substance.
Four Republicans, including Kevin Witkos of Canton, a police officer, and congressional candidate Andrew Roraback of Goshen, joined 17 Democrats in supporting the bill.
The 10 Republicans in opposition were joined by three Democrats: Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Gayle Slossberg of Milford.
“It’s something I’ve never felt comfortable supporting,” Slossberg said. “It’s against federal law.”
Connecticut will become the 18th jurisdiction to legalize medical marijuana since 1996, beginning with Calfornia, according to ProCon.org and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. It is legal in the District of Columbia and 16 states, including Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and New Jersey.
Unlike last week’s House deliberations, which set concerns over controlling marijuana against against heartfelt stories of loved ones facing debilitating diseases, nearly the entire Senate debate amounted to Boucher’s objections.
At several times as few as six of the chamber’s 36 members were present to hear Boucher’s arguments, which centered on four principal objections:
- The drug causes more harm than it provides relief.
- Illegal use would expand, particularly among youth, who perceive it as medicinal, not harmful. “We undermine our current anti-drug and substance abuse programs. Kids are smoking pot because they think it’s safe.”
- Criminal activity would increase, exploiting the challenges of regulating legal marijuana production and distribution. “It appears in every state this has been enacted, the abuse inherent in the bill cannot be prevented,” and licensed dispensaries “are little more than dope dealers with storefronts.”
- And that federal statutes outlawing marijuana use not only would expose patients, but also physicians, pharmacies and any other businesses involved in production or distribution to civil and criminal liability. “It is a fear and a danger that they will shut them down.”
Boucher offered seven amendments, including one that would limit use to the terminally ill and another to restrict to patients age 21 and older. The underlying bill makes it available to patients 18 and older.
“We can probably find a study that will contradict every single study Senator Boucher has cited this evening,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Coleman predicted the bill would not saddle the Connecticut with legal or abuse problems, adding that legislators here investigated mishaps in other states.
“California is the best example of how not to do medical marijuana,” he said, calling that state’s implementation a “subterfuge” for recreational use. “If such abuses are allowed, the feds should step in… We’ve got sufficient framework.”
Others, including some of Boucher’s fellow Republicans, rejected her other arguments as well.
“There’s enough doubt in my mind,” said Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford. “I’m not a scientist … Who am I to deny relief for someone from that discomfort?”
Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, ranking Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee, said because marijuana use would be carefully regulated, he believes there would be little danger of widespread abuse.
“Why would anyone want to participate in this program unless they were very ill?” he said. “God forbid I’m ever in that spot, but I don’t want to be running around Connecticut trying to find out where I can get medical marijuana.”
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.
But 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.
Still, Boucher was backed by most of her fellow Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“This is not doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury. “This is wiggling around the law.”
“This is not only an attempt to circumvent federal law,” said Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden. “It also circumvents well over 80 years of medical practice.”
Final roll call: 21 yes, 13 no, 2 absent.
Democrats: 17 yes, 3 no, 2 absent.
Republicans: 4 yes, 10 no, 0 absent.