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Rhode Island bill would create dispensaries.

By: skamikaze

PROVIDENCE — A year after passing permanent medical marijuana legislation, lawmakers say it’s time to establish a safe and legal means for patients to obtain the drug.

Right now, qualifying patients may grow marijuana, but since the state provides no access to the drug, they often resort to buying it on the street.

Legislators and doctors call that scenario an unwanted weak link in an otherwise successful law. They’ve heard too many stories like that of Warwick’s Buddy Coolen, 29, a medical marijuana user who three months ago was robbed at gunpoint by the drug dealer while trying to buy marijuana to treat his debilitating gastrointestinal condition.

Now Rep. Thomas C. Slater and Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, both of Providence, who sponsored the permanent medical marijuana law, propose expanding its scope to create licensed marijuana dispensaries, or “compassion centers,” which would legally grow and distribute the drug at affordable prices to the 359 patients who partake of the state’s program.

The centers would be regulated by the Health Department and would also offer education services to eligible patients and their caregivers.

Testifying at a Senate hearing on the subject last night, Dr. Todd Handel, a physiatrist and pain-management specialist, said such clinics would resolve a host of obstacles that currently accompany the use of medical marijuana in this state.

“The problem now is, how are my patients supposed to get it? If I write a prescription for Oxycontin, they’re not going to the street to buy it, they’re going to a pharmacy,” he noted. “… But when it comes to marijuana I can’t tell them how much to take, how to use it and where they can get it because it’s illegal for them to get it. So I’m saying to them, ‘you have a diagnosis that the state allows for but it’s illegal for you to obtain it and I can’t tell you how to do it.’ ”

Handel was one of several doctors and almost a half dozen patients who testified in support of the proposed centers. Together, they agreed that the state’s medical marijuana program has been invaluable in helping relieve the chronic pain and nausea that accompanies cancer, AIDS and other illnesses. But growing enough healthy plants for regular dosages, or finding reliable places to buy the drug, can prove challenging, they admitted.

It’s a set of circumstances Slater and Perry say already weakened patients should not have to grapple with.

Slater said he omitted the creation of compassion centers from the original proposal –– which passed as a temporary measure in 2006 and was written into permanent law last year –– because he felt it was important to pass the legislation incrementally, to allow lawmakers to warm up to the idea. “But I think now is the time to help protect those patients who really need it and give them a safe place to get it,” Slater said yesterday.

Nationwide, the use of medical marijuana has increased in recent years. At least 12 states now have laws allowing use of the drug for medical purposes. But according to the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, only New Mexico and California have laws governing dispensaries: California’s centers are not regulated by the state and need not be nonprofit agencies, and so far New Mexico has not yet licensed any clinics, said Jesse Stout, executive director of the coalition.

Rhode Island’s compassion center proposal is not without its critics, including the governor and others who say Rhode Island shouldn’t be passing laws that ignore federal law, which still bans marijuana usage.

“To continue to flout the federal law and to start dealerships or whatever you want to call them is just irresponsible,” said Rep. Nicholas Gorham, R-Coventry, who has in the past opposed marijuana legislation. Gorham pointed to the spate of federal raids on California dispensaries in recent years as examples of the problems Rhode Island could face if it creates such centers.

Health Department spokeswoman Helen Drew voiced similar concerns, saying the department does not want to jeopardize the program in its current format.

Furthermore, she said, the Health Department “has no expertise in licensing these types of facilities” and no expertise in establishing regulations. “We feel it moves us way beyond the scope of public health,” she said.

A Carcieri spokesman said the governor continues to oppose any medical marijuana legislation, having twice vetoed the measure.

Slater acknowledged yesterday that the compassion-center proposal will encounter obstacles. “But it’s a start,” he said, noting that it took almost a decade to garner enough support to pass the medical marijuana legislation.

The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services took no action on the bill yesterday. A hearing on an identical House bill is expected sometime next week.

Patient Buddy Coolen believes that passage can’t come soon enough to safeguard the state’s sickest residents, to avoid other violent attacks such as the one against him. “Hopefully we can prevent innocent patients from getting into a situation that could turn deadly,” he said.

Source: The Providence Journal

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