Ellen Smith would be dead in her home state of New Jersey, she said. Speaking during "Rhode Island and the State of Medical Marijuana," a panel sponsored by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Smith told an audience of roughly 30 people that the unavailability of medical marijuana in New Jersey means she could not access the drug that could alleviate her painful disorder.
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14, pressured by the Obama administration, halted the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries last September after the state's federal prosecutor warned that the dispensaries could face legal challenges. He finalized an agreement with state legislators in March that would permit dispensaries to operate under restrictions on how much marijuana they could sell, though he told the Associated Press Tuesday that the compromise could still draw federal prosecution. The General Assembly approved medical marijuana dispensaries in 2009.
The lack of dispensaries leaves Rhode Island with a unique caregiver-based medical marijuana system. The system relies mainly on independent "caregivers," people who grow the plants and supply them to patients in need.
Smith decided to become a caregiver after benefitting from the medical marijuana program. She has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare condition marked by frail collagen. The disorder can affect the skin, joints, tissues and organs.
Prior to receiving her medical marijuana license, Smith had been unable to sleep, further exacerbating her illness. Marijuana was Smith's last and only option after having reactions to other drugs. After trying medical marijuana for the first time, she said, "I expected this horrible reaction. Next thing I know, I woke up. I actually slept for the entire night. It was the most beautiful experience I've ever had." The audience erupted in applause in response.
"People need to know that we are real people," she added. "I have the right to get pain relief, too."
Seth Bock, founder and chief executive officer of the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, said he feels marijuana is just one of "a whole body of herbs that have vast untapped potential." The most difficult thing about Rhode Island's medical marijuana system is that "it's shrouded in a cloud of criminality" because marijuana is illegal under federal law, he said.
Both Bock and Smith said they viewed the caregiver program as helpful and agreed that medical marijuana dispensaries would take a lot of pressure off caregivers. Marijuana growing is a difficult process that requires physical energy and extensive knowledge of how to grow the plants and select strains needed by patients. Because the dispensaries have been blocked, it is up to the caregivers to produce as much marijuana as they can, within the legal limit, for the many patients they service.
The caregiver program "isn't satisfying the needs of all of the patients," Bock said.
Bock and Smith said they did not want the caregiver program to become obsolete once the compassion centers open, but rather for it to be another option for patients.
Michael Fine, director of the Rhode Island Health Department, said he did not have an opinion on whether caregivers and compassion centers should cooperate to provide patients marijuana. Fine maintained a neutral stance throughout the panel, often refusing to give his opinion. "At this point in my life, my personal beliefs have to take a back seat to my public responsibilities," Fine said.
Bock said the push to legalize and legitimize medical marijuana is also a "symbolic movement" representing a much larger issue. People for "so many decades have been excluded from the practice of health care administration," he said. "A hundred years ago, people could grow the herbs they wanted to grow in their backyard medicinally."
Bock added that he views the challenges to medical marijuana dispensaries as relating to "two sections of federal laws that are causing opposing views" and said that this discrepancy may have to be resolved in court.
The federal government has interfered with state-regulated medical marijuana programs before. Police Monday raided Oaksterdam University, a university in Oakland, California that teaches students how to grow medical marijuana. Oaksterdam also educates its students on all aspects of marijuana usage, including marijuana legislation.
Bock said it is difficult to compare the medical marijuana policies in California and Rhode Island. "The state of Rhode Island chose to create a model that is highly regulated, that would lessen the negative impact seen in California and elsewhere," he said.
Toward the end of the panel, Dr. Fine raised a potential concern with the medical marijuana program, pointing out that doctors who authorize use of the drug do not necessarily need to follow up with patients the way others do, since they do not need to write a refill. The physicians, who occupy a "gray area," are solely in charge of initial authorization - after that, they do not have any control over marijuana usage because they do not have knowledge about strains of marijuana, Fine said, which puts them in "an interesting ethical bind."
Bock pointed out what he called the "catch-22" of the medical marijuana system. Since marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, it is difficult for scientists to research the effects of medical marijuana because the federal government will not fund research on drugs under this categorization. Chafee and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire have backed a petition that asks for marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule II drug, a classification that would recognize marijuana's medicinal effects.