Bill MacDonald got right to it. Incurable cancer can do that, give a man a heightened sense of time, and MacDonald had just waited five hours for the chance to address the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in Room 2C for exactly three minutes.
“I’m a stage 4 thyroid cancer patient,” MacDonald said by way of introduction as he sunk into a gray leather seat. “This is going to be a little emotional. I’m sorry.”
MacDonald, 43, of Monroe, a former landscaper with a weathered face, shaved head and collection of scars from 40 surgeries, leaned on a cherry-wood desk and spoke into a black goose-neck microphone that glowed red near the tip, signaling it was live.
He was there to urge passage of Senate Bill 11, An Act Concerning the Legalization and Taxation of the Retail Sale of Marijuana, telling lawmakers how cannabis oil extended and transformed his life. Medical marijuana is legal, but too expensive, he said. He is seeking the right to cultivate cannabis for personal use.
From the same chair, Dr. Deepak Cyril D’Souza counseled caution, sharing research he’s conducted at the Yale School of Medicine and data gathered by others that suggest cannabis is addictive, has a disturbing link in adolescent users to schizophrenia, and has been a factor in motor vehicle accidents where legal.
“Driving on I-95 is bad enough,” said D’Souza, a psychiatrist. “Driving on I-95 with people who are stoned is a very bad idea.”
They all had stories to tell, testimony to give in the long line of pleas, insults, ideas, hunches, opinions and data delivered at public hearings, which have their own season at the Connecticut General Assembly.
The season is winding down as the legislature’s committees reach their deadlines for reporting out bills to the floor of the House or Senate. Most committees are done. One of the busiest, the Judiciary Committee’s deadline isn’t until April 7. It has another hearing Friday, this time on bills relating to domestic violence, human trafficking and victim notification.
Unlike Congress, where hearings typically are by invitation, they are open at the General Assembly, first-come, first-served after an opening hour reserved for public officials, including legislators who sometimes testify on their own bills.
Rep. Arthur A. O’Neill, R-Southbury, the longest-serving Republican member of the House of Representatives with 29 years of service, has come to appreciate hearings, even if they have kept him in Room 2C past midnight, sometimes listening to repetitious testimony from the public and watching grandstanding by colleagues.
“For me first and foremost, it is an information-gathering process. It does get mixed in with some of the theatrics, both on the part of legislators who are using the hearings as an opportunity to wag their finger and try to look like they are really doing something…and for some members of the public to do some street theater,” O’Neill said.
But O’Neill said there is something essential about the fact that anyone can show up, sign a list and wait their turn to address the General Assembly — especially in a time when polls find citizens angry and estranged from their government, holding Congress and state legislatures in low esteem.
“It really makes the people a part of the process, so hopefully they feel like it doesn’t need to be blown up,” O’Neill said.
Rep. William A. Petit Jr., R-Plainville, a physician elected to his first term last fall, said he appreciates the everyman appeal, but the process could be better.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been impressed that we have a great need to present data at public hearings,” Petit said. “It’s OK to present some opinions, but to hear the same opinion over and over again 25 times is not helpful.”
Petit invited D’Souza and introduced him to the committee.
“At some point, we need data,” Petit said. “In this case, is marijuana harmful? Is it harmful to youth? Is it harmful to people with mental health issues? What’s the public health cost? What’s the cost in terms of driving? Presenting data is critical.”
Petit said the witnesses who come with facts and opinions grab his attention. During a hearing on the budget, which drew pleas for funding in a year when programs are facing deep cuts, he was impressed by a New Haven group that teaches construction skills to men fresh out of prison.
After explaining what they do, they offered data on outcomes — how much lower was the recidivism rate of the men they trained and placed in jobs, compared to other former inmates. Petit said he thanked him.
Three minutes is standard at the hearings.
But witnesses deemed expert can expect questions after their allowed time. D’Souza was on for about two hours answering questions while MacDonald and others listened, sometimes signaling silent agreement or displeasure with a nod or head shake.
Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, a co-chair, asked about the addictive quality of marijuana.
D’Souza replied that about 10 percent of users will find it addictive
“Is cannabis as addictive as cocaine? Absolutely not,” D’Souza said. “It’s not as addictive as nicotine, but it’s addictive.”
In response to another question, D’Souza, whose research includes exploring potential beneficial uses of cannabis, said he knew of no convincing evidence proving or refuting that it was a gateway drug.
His testimony was finished by lunch. MacDonald’s chance came closer to the dinner hour.
MacDonald said he was hit by a cascade of health issues in 2008, beginning with a bite from a brown recluse spider that sent him to the hospital, where doctors found he had cancer of the thyroid. Removal of the thyroid made his metabolism go haywire: His weight ballooned to 487 pounds, leaving him bedridden for four years.
He had little to do, except read. MacDonald, who also has tumors in his lungs, said he was intrigued by what he read about cannabis oil, which is easily derived from marijuana. He developed his own regimen.
MacDonald said he credits the oil with helping him lose about 260 pounds, get off opiates and cope with a cancer that he says is resistant to chemotherapy and radiation. He said he qualifies for the state’s medical cannabis program, but buying the oil at state dispensaries would cost him nearly $2,000 a week.
He has been getting his oil in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where growers provide it for free in hardship cases.
MacDonald asked the Connecticut lawmakers for “grow rights.”
“I just feel the plants should be put in our hands,” he said. “This plant, it gives back to you.”
Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, a co-chair, called him courageous and thanked him for his testimony.
MacDonald left Room 2C happy for having waited.
“I still have an untreatable cancer in my body. I don’t know how long I can live for, but it means a lot to me to just get this information out there,” he said, talking in the corridor outside the hearing room.
A man passed by, clapped him on the back said, “Amazing testimony, man.”