Politics of pain

Rhode Island follows through on medical marijuana
By IAN DONNIS  |  January 7, 2006

When it comes to the legalization of medical marijuana in Rhode Island, the question has generally been when — not if — it would happen.EVERYONE, IT SEEMS knows someone who would like to use medical marijuana to cope with such debilitating illnesses as cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

Sure, Republican governor Donald L. Carcieri, whose vetoes have withstood the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in the past, could cite a litany of concerns, from distribution to the fear that legalizing medical marijuana will make it far more available to children. But by resoundingly overriding Carcieri’s veto in a 59-13 vote, the Rhode Island House of Representatives on Tuesday embraced the compassionate theme long sounded by proponents.

The vote, capped by enthusiastic applause from supporters, makes Rhode Island the 11th state to legalize medical marijuana — and the first to do so since the US Supreme Court ruled last June in Gonzales v. Raich that the federal government can prosecute sick people who use the drug to ease their discomfort.

Showing a distinct lack of anxiety about crossing the feds, the Rhode Island Senate voted in support of medical marijuana less than 24 hours after the high court’s decision last summer. And while such legislative support might seem unusual in a place with a strong strain of social conservatism, it reflects the intimacy of a state where everyone, it seems, knows someone who would like to use medical marijuana to better cope with such debilitating illnesses as cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

“Two years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been an issue with me,” said Representative Thomas C. Slater (D-Providence), the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House. But after watching a brother, an uncle, and his father die from cancer, the representative — who has himself has been treated for the disease — sees things very differently. Speaking with reporters before Tuesday’s vote, he noted, “There are a lot of other people out there who have friends and family who have been sick.”

A three-fifths majority was needed in the 75-member House to override Carcieri’s veto, and the outcome never seemed in doubt as the chamber took up the matter before officially starting the new legislative session. Opposition came mostly from Democratic rivals of House Speaker William J. Murphy and from Republicans, like House Minority Leader Robert Watson, a medical-marijuana proponent, who voted with the governor in partisan solidarity.

In a statement, Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal warned, “This bill appears to violate federal law. Consequently, it will subject Rhode Islanders to prosecution by the federal government. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that state laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana do not trump federal laws criminalizing marijuana. The consequence is that Rhode Islanders who rely on state law can still be prosecuted criminally by the federal government.”

But as Anthony Pettigrew, the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s New England spokesman, told me last year, “The DEA has never targeted the sick and dying, but rather criminals [involved] in drug cultivation and trafficking. We’ll target major trafficking organizations and take them apart.” (See “Rhode Trip,” News and Features, July 8, 2005.)

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