The state Senate debated for more than seven hours Friday before approving a bill that permits the medical use of marijuana.
Although the measure was always expected to pass, the Republican opponents filed 48 amendments in their effort to stop the bill.
The issue has come up several times in the past decade, but Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said this year’s bill is far superior to past versions. The measure passed the House of Representatives on April 25.
It’s “a much more improved bill, one that emphasizes regulation and oversight and controls and one that was not susceptible to abuse,” Coleman, co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said just moments after the debate began at 4:48 p.m. Friday.
Under this bill, “there are restrictions every step of the way,” said Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who backs the measure. He said today is a “historic day” in the state.
But critics strongly disagreed. Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, has been the leading voice in opposition to the bill. Legalizing medical marijuana would send a devastating message to young people, she said. Boucher became known for her marathon talks about marijuana on the House floor, and that has continued now that she is in the state Senate.
“There are reams of data that speak to the cost of the state due to the unhealthy [health] effects of marijuana,” Boucher said.
Boucher said she would back the bill if it were amended to limit the use of medical marijuana only to patients who are terminally ill. At 6:15 p.m. Friday, only six senators were in their seats in the 36-member chamber as Boucher talked about the effects of medical marijuana. She said it is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes because “the mode of inhalation” is different and more dangerous.
Long-term marijuana use, she said, also affects your heart and lungs – and causes problems with infertility in men. In addition, it leads to increased depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, she said. They 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.
“One of the leaders of the marijuana movement … is suffering from brain cancer,” Boucher said on the Senate floor.
Boucher noted at one point that she was repeating herself, but she said that was the point where people will remember it. Smoking one joint per day is like smoking four to five cigarettes, she 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.”
A non-smoked form is available in a pill and does not have the carcinogens that are present in a cigarette, she said.
“Babies born to marijuana users tended to weigh less and had smaller heads,” she said on the Senate floor. “The drug appeared to have effects over and above the use of tobacco. … Women who smoke marijuana should quit before becoming pregnant.”
Those with heavy and frequent use as a youngster will run into problems later in life, she said.
“So what if medical marijuana continues not to be available? What do we do?” she asked, saying that marijuana cannot be smoked in a safe manner.
To qualify for medical marijuana, patients would need a physician’s certification that they have debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy. Patients would have to be at least 18. Prison inmates would not qualify.
Marijuana would be dispensed only by pharmacists who obtain a special license. Qualifying patients and their primary caregivers would be required to register with the Department of Consumer Protection.
The consumer protection commissioner would also license producers to cultivate marijuana and distribute it within the state. These producers would have to pay a nonrefundable application fee of at least $25,000 for a producer license, and licenses would have to be renewed at least every five years. Producers would have to demonstrate that they could grow pharmaceutical-grade marijuana in a secure indoor facility and also have the ability to prevent diversion or theft of the marijuana they grow.
The debate in Connecticut has changed sharply since 2003, when the measure failed on the floor of the House after an emotional debate. The issue passed one year later, in 2004, by 75-71, but it has never been signed into law. After being passed by both chambers in 2007, the bill was vetoed by then-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 and people coping with chronic and serious illness about the role marijuana plays in their medical treatment.
“There has been a sea-change over the last decade,” Kissel said.