Medical Marijuana Act up for review

Since the implementation of the Medical Marijuana Act last spring, Rhonda O’Donnell, a 44-year-old former registered nurse with multiple sclerosis, has used marijuana to alleviate her pain without fear of breaking the law.

O’Donnell, the first person in Rhode Island to apply for the Medical Marijuana Program, praised the therapeutic effects of marijuana. “It’s instantaneous cooling of the burning,” she said. “I don’t need it that often, but when I do, it works for me.”

O’Donnell is one among nearly 200 individuals who currently qualify to use medical marijuana in Rhode Island. The Medical Marijuana Act, which allows individuals suffering from chronic or debilitating conditions to use marijuana with their physicians’ certification, will be evaluated this spring as legislators decide whether to renew the act. The act, which was passed last January, includes a sunset provision mandating its repeal on June 30.

The Medical Marijuana Program began issuing registration cards last May, and 192 registration cards were issued by December, according to a report by the Rhode Island Department of Health. The report shows that nearly 57 percent of registered patients are suffering from a “chronic or debilitating disease or condition,” with the remaining patients suffering from Hepatitis C, cancer, HIV, AIDS or glaucoma.

The major concern the report raises is the availability of marijuana for registered patients. “The most frequent request to the department is for information regarding the purchase of marijuana,” the report stated.

The act does not specify where patients can get access to marijuana. Patients can grow marijuana themselves, have caretakers grow it for them or buy it from the black market.

O’Donnell said she gets marijuana for her pain from a friend who got it from a source unknown to O’Donnell. “I don’t know anyone who grows it,” she said.

Jesse Stout ’06, the founder of Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a network of Rhode Island groups supporting medical marijuana, said the proposed 2007 renewal should include a clause on the availability of marijuana, but he doesn’t think it will happen. “Ideally, there should be state-funded programs to get marijuana,” Stout said.

Trevor Stutz ’07, former president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, also believes a government-controlled source of marijuana isn’t a realistic goal right now. “Dispensaries were definitely considered but at this point don’t look like the best model given the nature and size of Rhode Island and the active patient groups,” he said. “It seems like organizing through the patient groups informally and through RIPAC may be the best model,” Stutz added.

Although she doesn’t need to obtain marijuana often, O’Donnell said it would be “nice for safety and consistency’s sake” if there were regulated dispensaries.

The report listed only one incident of abuse of marijuana by a registered patient. Steven Trimarco of Exeter was arrested last October and charged with 19 counts of delinquency with a minor, three counts of possession of narcotics with intent to deliver and two counts of possession of firearms or armor-piercing bullets. Though patients are allowed only 12 plants under the act, police took 72 marijuana plants from his home.

The Providence Journal reported Jan. 17 that Trimarco had two Myspace.com pages showing him posing amid marijuana plants. The article cited police reports stating that Trimarco smoked marijuana on multiple occasions with at least four teenage girls, ages 13 to 15.

Aside from inquiries over access to marijuana, the report stated there has been “minimal community response to the implementation of the medical marijuana program.”

An Oct. 2006 poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Washington, D.C., showed that 79 percent of Rhode Islanders support the legislation. The poll had a 4 percent margin of error.

“Passage (of the act) is itself a big success. Nothing’s really gone wrong,” Stout said. “Inclusion of the sunset clause is the biggest failure of the law.”

Stutz also called the legislation a relative success so far. “There have been no problems with the legislation itself. The cost of implementing it has been very low. Patients are being protected from arrest, which is the ultimate goal,” Stutz said.

O’Donnell called the bill “compassionate.”

“It’s a relief for people who are suffering already from pain. It’s just one less thing they have to worry about. They’re suffering enough,” she said.

The new medical marijuana act will go to the floor of the General Assembly this spring, according to Stout. Currently, the patient advocacy coalition is building support for the passage of the bill. “We’re building a grassroots network of people who are interested in supporting the bill, including patients, doctors and nurses,” Stout said.

“Given the 79 percent of public support and the success of the program, it was a good idea then and a good idea now,” Stutz said.

Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national marijuana policy reform organization, said although overall response to the bill has been positive, some people still have reservations. “People just aren’t over their fears yet. This is something that will happen over time as this becomes more a part of people’s daily lives,” Mirken said. But the bill will likely pass because of support in the legislature, he added.

For her part, O’Donnell said it would be unfortunate if the bill does not pass again because lobbyists for the legislation would have to start over.

“I’m hopeful. I think it should fly no problem because it had so much support last year in both the House and the Senate,” she said.

Jeff Neal, press secretary for Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65, did not return calls for comment. Carcieri vetoed the initial legislation but was overridden by the General Assembly in January 2006.