Following a passionate debate that stretched on for nearly 10 hours, the Connecticut Senate early this morning gave final legislative approval to a bill that legalizes and regulates the medical use of marijuana.
Gov. Malloy hailed the bill’s passage and said he will sign it into law once it reaches his desk.
“There are thousands of people in Connecticut who will likely benefit from this legislation as they struggle with debilitating and life-threatening illnesses,” Malloy said in a statement issued moments after the votes were tallied at 2:35 a.m. ”With them in mind, I want to commend the General Assembly for passing this bill.”
Although lawmakers have pondered the issue several times in the past decade, supporters say this year’s bill is superior to previous versions. It contains safeguards and restrictions that are lacking in other states, said Senate President Donald Williams.
“When I looked at some of the other states that took what I thought was almost a wild, wild west approach of allowing people to grow plants at home and the lack of oversight and regulation, I did not believe it was the right thing for Connecticut to do, to emulate those states and those versions,” Williams said.
Three Democratic Senators–Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Gayle Slossberg of Milford–joined with Republicans to oppose the bill. Four Republicans, John Kissel of Enfield, Kevin Wikos of Canton, Andrew Roraback of Goshen and Anthony Guglielmo of Stafford, voted yes. Two Senators, Edith Prague, D-Columbia, and Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, were absent.
The bill, which passed the House of Representatives late last month, ”emphasizes regulation and oversight and controls,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield and co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee. ,
Leading the charge for the opposition was Sen. Toni Boucher, who began speaking before 6 p.m. Friday and was still going strong at 2 a.m. Saturday. The Republican from Wilton cited studies, statistics and anecdotes during her filibuster before a chamber that was largely empty at various points throughout the long discussion.
Boucher summoned various arguments throughout the night, from the medical (marijuana is highly addictive and smoking it can cause cancer and other health problems) to the legal (permitting the medicinal use of marijuana would put Connecticut in direct conflict with federal law) to the educational (the bill sends the wrong message to young people.)
“I guess I’ve spent some time trying to convince you that … this is the wrong direction,” Boucher said at one point, with just six of 36 senators in the room and the galleries above both sides of the ornate Senate circle devoid of spectators.
Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said Boucher gave the equivalent of a college-level course on the dangers of marijuana.
Boucher, who views marijuana as a “gateway drug” that destroys lives, offered to drop her opposition if lawmakers amended the bill to limit medical marijuana use only to those facing a terminal illness. That amendment — the first of the 48 to come up for a vote — failed, 23-11, at 10:30 p.m.
At 11:20 p.m., senators voted on the second amendment, which would have excluded glaucoma patients from using medicinal pot. Like the earlier effort to change the bill; this one also failed, on a vote of 24-10.
Lawmakers ultimately worked their way through just seven of the amendments, each one of them falling short.
Unlike other states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, notably California and Colorado, Connecticut would tightly regulate the drug’s use, advocates say. To qualify, patients would need a physician’s certification that they have a debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy.
Marijuana would be dispensed only by pharmacists who obtained a special license. Qualifying patients and their primary caregivers would be required to register with the Department of Consumer Protection.
“We don’t want Connecticut to follow the path pursued by some other states, which essentially would legalize marijuana for anyone willing to find the right doctor and get the right prescription,” Malloy said. “In my opinion, such efforts run counter to federal law. Under this proposal, however, the Department of Consumer Protection will be able to carefully regulate and monitor the medicinal use of this drug in order to avoid the problems encountered in some other states.”
The debate in Connecticut has changed sharply since 2003, when the measure failed on the floor of the House after an emotional debate. The proposal passed one year later, in 2004, by a vote of 75-71, but it has never been signed into law. After being passed by both chambers in 2007, the bill was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican.
In those early days, it was primarily stoners and people from “the radical left” who favored the bill as a way to force social change on marijuana policy, Kissel said. “Very few people in medicine supported the bill,” he said.
But as the years went on, lawmakers began hearing from medical professionals. They also heard harrowing, deeply personal stories from people coping with chronic and serious illnesses about the role that marijuana plays in their medical treatment.
“There has been a sea change over the last decade,” Kissel said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said he understands the suffering seriously ill patients endure. “I remember walking out of my car one day in…college, to go pick up my father from the train station,” said McKinney, whose father was the late Congressman Stewart McKinney. “I hadn’t seen him in about six months…and I didn’t recognize him because he had lost 40 or 50 pounds because he was dying of AIDS. I understand that suffering and that pain.”
But, McKinney said, “I have never been able to get around…the fact that what we are authorizing to be done is a violation of law. And I don’t know if we’ve ever done that in this circle before.”
Boucher argued that legalizing medical marijuana would send a devastating message to young people. “There are reams of data that speak to the cost of the state due to the unhealthy effects of marijuana,” she said.
Long-term marijuana use, Boucher said, affects the heart and lungs and causes problems with infertility in men; in addition, it leads to increased depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, she said. Marijuana users are also “more than twice as likely as other drivers to be involved in motor vehicle crashes,” she said, comparing “doped driving” to drunken driving.
Smoking one joint per day is like smoking four to five cigarettes, Boucher said. “It is an accepted fact that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer,” she said. “This implies … that marijuana leads to some of the same results. … The smoking of cannabis has a detrimental effect to our lungs. … I think we’ve made the case on that. This is why the FDA has been very, very cautious about the public moving in this direction.”