Marijuana bridges divisions

Marijuana makes for strange bedfellows.

Liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans are finding common cause in supporting a House bill that would legalize medical marijuana.

“This is a bill whose message has been heard loud and clear,” said bill sponsor Rep. Evalyn Merrick, a Lancaster Democrat. “I sense we’ll have a good deal of support on both sides of the aisle.”

The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a bill allowing medical marijuana in 2009, but Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed it. The House overrode the veto, but the Senate came up two votes short.

Now, supporters of medical marijuana say they are optimistic an improved bill, which addresses Lynch’s concerns, will pass the House with the support of many of the libertarian-minded freshman representatives. But the bill’s chances in the Senate are dim. And Lynch said he has concerns about it.

“The governor vetoed legislation that would have legalized medical marijuana because he had a number of serious concerns, and he continues to have a number of serious concerns,” said Lynch spokesman Colin Manning.

Objections that the governor voiced in 2009 included the potential for unauthorized redistribution of marijuana, the amount of marijuana patients were allowed to possess and a lack of restrictions on what type of patients could possess marijuana, among others.

State Sen. Jim Forsythe, a Strafford Republican and former chairman of the state Republican Liberty Caucus, said the challenge for libertarian-leaning Republicans will be to convince more socially conservative party members that allowing medical marijuana fits with conservative values.

“Conservatives traditionally oppose Obamacare because they want government out of doctor patient relationships, and medical marijuana helps satisfy that,” Forsythe said. “We believe in minimal regulation, and this helps toward that.”

The bill would allow patients who suffer from debilitating medical conditions to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana, with a doctor’s prescription and an identification card proving the patient is allowed to have marijuana.

It would set up “alternative treatment centers” to distribute the marijuana, which would be subject to extensive regulations. Currently, 15 states allow medical marijuana.

The impetus behind the bill is individuals like Clayton Holton, who has muscular dystrophy, and Nicole Rockwell, who has spinal muscular atrophy.

Rockwell, of Manchester, told the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee yesterday that marijuana helps her eat, sleep and alleviate the depression and pain she has suffered her whole life.

Holton, who said he has “been on every drug known to man for my pain,” said he grew marijuana in California. During the 10 months he was there, he went from taking 16 pills a day to zero. He said he stopped using marijuana six months ago when he was given marijuana laced with another drug.

“It sent me to the ER blacking out,” Holton said. “This law would protect me from that ever happening to myself or anyone.”

Lawmakers who support medical marijuana say those stories, and their own experiences, led them to write the current bill. Merrick, who also sponsored the 2009 bill, called the new legislation “the tightest and most carefully crafted bill in the country, designed to provide much-needed relief to some of our sickest citizens, those who are seriously and terminally ill.”

Merrick herself has an incurable form of blood cancer and has undergone a bone marrow transplant.

“I attribute the fact that I’m sitting here today in large part to my short and limited experience with medical cannabis while trying to recover from a transplant years ago,” Merrick said.

Merrick said she was starving to death from an inability to eat or drink and no pharmaceutical helped.

“Cannabis was legally a risky choice, but I was desperate to survive, and I was desperate for recovery,” she said.

Today, Merrick cites studies showing marijuana is effective in alleviating symptoms of chronic illnesses and has fewer side effects than many legal pharmaceuticals. It is cheaper than many legal drugs and does not carry the risk of a fatal overdose, as many legal drugs do.

In a rare moment, the testimony of Andover Republican Rep. Jennifer Coffey – a leader among conservative Republicans – sounded remarkably similar to the testimony of Portsmouth Democratic Rep. Rich DiPentima. Coffey is a licensed nursing assistant; DiPentima a retired nurse. Both are cancer survivors. Both supported the bill.

“Nothing will break your heart more than having an elderly patient look at you and admit they’re breaking the law because their grandchild is bringing medicinal marijuana because the chemicals we give them make them feel worse,” Coffey said.

“I’ve seen personally the impact of medications and sometimes the lack of efficacy and success of treatments,” DiPentima added.

The bill’s sponsors include five Republicans and four Democrats. For many supporters, personal experiences trumped political ideology. Rep. William Panek, a first-term Republican from Farmington, said marijuana helped him stop throwing up when he was suffering from Meniere’s disease, which affects the inner ear and causes vertigo. Rep. John Reagan, a third-term Republican from Deerfield, saw his mother suffer from breast cancer. MacKay, in his sixth term, was inspired by Merrick.

For others, political ideology was equally important. Rep. Christopher Serlin, a Portsmouth Democrat, supports decriminalization of marijuana altogether.

“I don’t see the logic in telling physicians who can prescribe powerful narcotics they can’t provide pot,” Serlin said.

On the conservative side, Canterbury Republican Seth Cohn sees the value of having government “not get in the way of a doctor and patient.”

Rep. James MacKay, a Concord Democrat and the Democratic policy leader for the health committee, said the Democratic House caucus has not yet decided whether to make a recommendation on the bill, but he anticipates Democrats will support it for humanitarian reasons.

House Republican leaders will not take a position.

Despite the passion, medical marijuana will not pass easily. Law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Michael Delaney, oppose the bill.

Assistant Attorney General Karin Eckel said Delaney worries the bill would result in the state having to use more resources to investigate marijuana-related crimes. She said it could lead to more recreational marijuana use and would send the wrong message to teenagers.

“Other states that passed legislation should serve as examples of how difficult it is to contain and systematically control who will have lawful access to this drug,” Eckel said.

Marijuana would still be illegal under federal law. And a Department of Safety official said there are problems regulating the potency of marijuana, since every batch of the drug is different.

In the Senate, Forsythe is the only co-sponsor. Forsythe said he anticipates support from Senate Democrats but only a handful of Republicans. Though it has not come up in caucus discussions, both Forsythe and Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, said the bill would be unlikely to pass. Bragdon said he worried about contradicting federal law and about a lack of scientific studies proving the efficacy of marijuana. Five current Republican senators opposed the medical marijuana bill in 2009; only one supported it.

“It might have a few Republican votes but not many,” Bragdon said.

Source: By Shira Schoenberg


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