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Conn. lawmakers revisit medical marijuana issue

By Shannon Young
Associated Press / March 7, 2012
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HARTFORD, Conn.—The latest attempt to legalize the medical use of marijuana in Connecticut appears to be gaining support in the General Assembly, with some critics saying they are now pleased to see this year's bill addressing issues about how the program would be run.

This year's version of the legislation, discussed Wednesday at a public hearing before the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, proposes a specific system for licensing medical marijuana producers in the state, dispensing the drug from a limited number of locations, and registering qualified patients with debilitating medical conditions.

"I think this may be the year," said Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, the committee's ranking House Republican, referring to the bill's possible passage. "This bill takes care of a lot of concerns that I have had."

State Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, who first supported the legislation 10 years ago when she was a freshman legislator, said the latest version addresses some of the problems that have occurred in other states with medical marijuana laws, such as Colorado and California. For example, Connecticut's bill would authorize the state Department of Consumer Protection to come up with a specific number of dispensaries based on the need for the drug.

The bill also sets up a medical board to review what medical conditions can be treated with marijuana and states that marijuana should be used as a last resort, she said.

"At the end of the day, it's this group of legislators that has to have the will and the courage to pass the bill," said Bacchiochi, who often tells the story about how marijuana helped ease the side effects of chemotherapy when her late husband was terminally ill. "I don't think I can talk any one of you into it."

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a longtime opponent of medical marijuana, said the changes made to the bill haven't persuaded her to support the legislation. However, she said acknowledged she would back the bill if it only affected the terminally ill, excluding people with debilitating illnesses.

Boucher said she remains concerned about the health effects of marijuana and how it can be a gateway drug for many abusers.

"This is the wrong message," she said. "We're telling kids this is medication and you just get a parking ticket."

Boucher acknowledged that many supporters of medical marijuana would pack Wednesday's hearing, which lasted into the evening. But she said she's been contacted by many parents who've lost their children to drug abuse and oppose legalizing marijuana, including for medical purposes.

"There would be a line out the door if there wasn't the feeling that somehow they're up against such obstacles here, and, not to mention that there are forces at work that really want this," she said.

A statewide physicians' group also opposes the bill. In testimony submitted to the committee, Mark Kraus, chairman of the Connecticut State Medical Society Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Education, said more data is needed on medical marijuana and its effects on certain patients and chronic diseases.

Barry Williams, a former lobbyist at the state Capitol who left in 2006 because his Parkinson's disease had worsened, said his physicians privately suggested he take marijuana to alleviate his symptoms.

"I tried it and the doctor was right," said Williams, who explained how it can take an hour to get dressed in the morning and how he needs to sleep in chair. "For the first time in a long time, I felt normal."

Lindsey Beck of Voluntown said she turned to marijuana for medicinal purposes after various prescription narcotics left her immobile. Beck said she has been diagnosed with Crohn's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I spent years on several different medications, and you feel like a guinea pig," she said.

Beck said using marijuana has allowed her to cut down on a substantial amount of medications and move away from prescribed narcotics.

Like Beck, Kathy O'Callaghan of Scotland also spoke in favor of legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes. O'Callaghan said she uses marijuana to help treat her multiple sclerosis. She said legalizing medical marijuana would ensure that people like herself would no longer need to take risks when buying and using the drug.

Despite supporting the bill, Erik Williams, executive director of the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said his group would like to see minor changes. He said those would include spelling out that all medical marijuana manufacturers would operate in Connecticut and requiring licensed pharmacists to be on-site or on-call at dispensaries during all operating hours and be available to answer patients' questions.

Williams maintained that his organization is focused on legalizing only medical marijuana this year and is not looking to pursue legislation that fully legalizes marijuana in Connecticut.

Advocates said 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

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Associated Press Writer Susan Haigh contributed to this report.

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