Thomas Slater, 68; R.I. lawmaker led fight on marijuana

By Ray Henry
Associated Press / August 11, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - Representative Thomas Slater, a state lawmaker who successfully urged legalizing marijuana to ease the pain of chronically ill patients, died of cancer yesterday at his Providence home, legislative leaders said.

He was 68.

Despite being seriously ill with cancer, Representative Slater, a Democrat of Providence, faithfully attended sessions of the General Assembly into the summer to oversee an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program.

Just weeks ago, the former Marine smiled, insisting he would beat his illness and recover.

“He was pugnacious and persistent when it came to an issue that he felt was worth fighting for,’’ said Senator Rhoda Perry, a fellow Democrat from Providence who partnered with Representative Slater for years on legalizing medical marijuana. “He persevered until he got the measure passed.’’

Representative Slater was first elected to office in 1994. He succeeded in passing the medical marijuana legislation in 2006, making Rhode Island the 11th state to allow chronically ill patients to possess small amounts of marijuana to ease their symptoms.

“Would I really take marijuana? I don’t know,’’ Representative Slater told The Boston Globe in 2005, adding that three of his six siblings had also battled cancer. “I just want the option out there for people. If they feel it would help them and a doctor feels it would help them, then I want them to have the option to use it without fear of state prosecution.’’

The drug remains illegal under federal law.

Representative Slater cast the sole vote in 2005 against an amendment naming the law for him.

He never seemed to doubt the bill would pass, even when supporters occasionally did.

“He was always a very optimistic person,’’ said Jesse Stout, a board member at the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, which supported legalization.

But the law had a defect: It never explained how patients could legally purchase the drug. Several patients reported being robbed and assaulted after turning to street dealers.

At Representative Slater’s urging, lawmakers passed legislation this year by a wide margin allowing up to three nonprofit stores in the state to legally sell marijuana to registered patients. He received a standing ovation from his colleagues - and even some critics - when the bill passed in the House.

As representative of a poor section of Providence, he spoke out against budget cuts that limited welfare benefits to the poor and reduced healthcare for children.

He opposed an executive order signed by Republican Governor Don Carcieri cracking down on illegal immigrants living in Rhode Island.

Representative Slater leaves his wife, Jody McKiernan; two sons, Gary M. and Scott A., both of Providence; a daughter, Ellen J. Gopalakrishnan of Cranston; and three grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Matthew Church in Cranston.