If proponents thought that the state’s approval of medical marijuana two years ago signaled broad support for legal distribution of the drug, the General Assembly’s defeat of legis-lation to create “compassion centers” shows otherwise.
As it stands, qualified users of medical marijuana remain dependent on obtaining the drug through illegal sources. So does legislative approval for a study of “compassion centers” signal just a bump in the road, or the dawn of a long-term battle to ease the availability of medical marijuana?
“I think the main obstacle was all the publicity California has been getting lately,” says Representative Thomas Slater (D-Providence), who sponsored the “compassion center” bill with state Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence). He was referring to press about a reported over-saturation of medicinal marijuana dispensaries in that state. By contrast, Rhode Island, he says, would have two or three centers for distributing medical marijuana.
On Saturday, the legislature voted to form a commission to study the possibility of “allowing dispensaries to legally provide medical marijuana to patients in Rhode Island.” The 13-member panel, composed of three representatives, three senators, two patients, a caregiver, law enforcer, doctor, nurse and patient advocate, is supposed to conclude a six-month study by January 2009.
Jesse Stout, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, an advocacy group, describes the commission as a positive thing.
“This study could really tip the balance,” Stout says. “We’re very optimistic about a bill’s passage in 2009, and the opening of compassion centers in Rhode Island by 2010.”
Slater, a champion of the original medical marijuana effort, also remains optimistic. “I think it will pass,” he says. “The people just have to get the facts behind them,” he said, contending that the commission will help to quell concerns from opponents.
The bottom line, however, is that Rhode Island’s marijuana medical law remains a half-measure, even with an absence of the problems originally predicted by opponents.
The Ocean State’s smallness — the sense that most legislators knew someone who might benefit — was a factor in the passage of the law in 2006, when the legislature over-rode a veto by Governor Carcieri. Yet the actual distribution of marijuana remains more controversial.
George Des Roches has been a participant in the state’s medicinal marijuana program for one year. He suffers from Marfan’s syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, and he has faced the business end of a gun while buying marijuana on the street.
Des Roches estimates the cost involved in growing marijuana at between $3000 and $5000, for proper lights and equipment.
“Considering some of these patients can’t care for themselves, that’s a pretty daunting task,” he says, emphasizing the benefits of an autonomous compassion center. And pointing to those like himself, he adds, “This isn’t just a bunch of people getting stoned.”