For Rhode Islanders suffering from terminal illnesses or chronic pains, medical marijuana can provide badly needed relief.
But getting the marijuana in a safe, legal manner can be problematic for these patients - which is why state legislators have introduced a bill allowing for the creation of up to three nonprofit Compassion Centers to grow and distribute the plant.
The bill was introduced in the state Senate last week by Sen. Rhoda Perry D-Dist. 3 P'91 and will be introduced in the House of Representatives today by Rep. Tom Slater D-Providence. It is a reincarnation of a 2008 bill which failed to pass the House despite winning a 30-5 vote in the Senate.
When the Rhode Island Medical Marijuana Act was passed three years ago, ill Rhode Islanders no longer faced the threat of "incarceration for using a doctor-recommended medication," said Jesse Stout '06, executive director of the Rhode Island Patients Advocacy Coalition. Since then, patients have been able to receive a license to grow and use marijuana from the state Department of Health.
The medical marijuana program has been a success, Stout said, accumulating 561 patients. "In general, patients are getting the medicine they need," he said.
But patients do not always know how to grow marijuana or lack adequate space or funds to produce it. In these cases, Stout said, some are forced to turn to the black market or drug dealers.
"We don't have a legal and safe method to distribute marijuana," said Perry, who began advocating for medical marijuana after losing a nephew to AIDS.
The bill places the dispensaries under the regulation of the Department of Health and contains restrictions on how much marijuana the centers may store at any given time.
Stout said he was optimistic about the bill's chances of passing during the 2009 congressional session. The new presidential administration is more "friendly" to the sentiments behind the bill and unlikely to interfere, Stout said, and local lawmakers will be more likely to lend their support since it is not an election year.
Though medical marijuana is currently legal in 13 states, none had state-run distribution centers like those proposed under the bill until New Mexico passed a law last year, Stout added.
The bill, which now has 50 co-sponsors in the House, also enjoys popular support. A 2008 poll paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project found that 69 percent of Rhode Islanders favored allowing registered patients to obtain marijuana from state-licensed, state-regulated facilities.
A variety of organizations, such as the Rhode Island Academy for Family Physicians and the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, have endorsed medical marijuana.
Although they initially had some hesitations, Rhode Island law enforcement is now also cooperative, said Stout. "Most police officers would agree that they don't want to arrest sick and dying people."
Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 will most likely veto the bill, but there are enough favorable votes in the Rhode Island General Assembly to override his veto, Stout said.
Some questioned the benefit of making medical marijuana more widely accessible.
"I think medical marijuana is another example of something that is in theory a good thing but it always has the ability to be abused," said Bryan Smith '10. "It probably does have the ability to help some people but I don't know if ... that's worth the harm it could cause."
Though the Compassion Centers would most likely not be fully functional until 2010, some patients are satisfied just to see progress being made.
Bobbi Brady Cataldo, a single mother of five, had been taking Vicodin for her multiple sclerosis before medical marijuana was legalized. Cataldo found that she did not react well to the pain-killer, feeling drowsiness and nausea.
"I didn't have room to be drugged out ... you have to either deal with the pain or take meds that make you a complete idiot."
But when Cataldo tried medical marijuana, she said it was a "miracle." The relief "was so immediate, I was floored," she added.
Other Rhode Islanders have been very supportive of her prescription, Cataldo said, but it still is difficult to obtain the marijuana she needs. Due to her condition, Cataldo cannot access the basement - the only suitable place in her house for growing the plant.
"You shouldn't have to go to the streets to get your medicine," Cataldo said. The dispensaries will make medical marijuana more accessible and affordable for patients, she added.
Levi Gadye '10, who has a medical marijuana license from California for back pains and insomnia, said he supports the bill.
Gadye said the "stubbornness of the federal government" has prevented reasonable legislation - such as the Compassion Center bill - from being passed. "It's another step to have a law to protect people who grow medical marijuana," he added.
Passing such a bill would help further the national conversation about medical marijuana, Gadye said. "If states are having this discussion themselves, the federal government will have to listen."