The state House of Representatives debated for more than seven hours Wednesday before approving a controversial plan to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes for adults – despite a letter from the state’s top federal prosecutor that those growing marijuana would be violating federal law.
In the final vote, the measure passed by 96 to 51 with Republicans and Democrats offsetting each other’s votes – 17 House Democrats voted against the bill and 17 Republicans voted in favor. The final vote came after 11: 15 p.m.
In an earlier test vote on the initial amendment that encompassed all aspects of the bill, the House voted 99 to 47 on a bipartisan basis in favor of the bill. The early vote indicated that the overall bill would pass later in the night.
The bill says that the patient would be required to receive a prescription from a physician to receive marijuana to relieve pain from illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, and multiple sclerosis. The bill would allow some producers to cultivate and grow the marijuana, and licensed pharmacists could provide the marijuana to the patient. The patient would need to re-qualify every year in order to keep smoking the medical marijuana.
Some legislators spoke from personal experience on the emotional issue, detailing the pain and suffering by family members that they have watched. Others said they were troubled as they tried to balance compassion for suffering patients against the rules of federal law.
“This is a tough issue for me. I am truly torn,” said state Rep. Brian Becker, an attorney and West Hartford Democrat who is serving his first term in the legislature. ”I have concluded that the way to help them is to ask the United States Congress to approve the use of medicinal marijuana. … Today, the use of marijuana for any purpose is a federal crime. … No matter what we do, the federal government may still prosecute under federal law.”
He added, “Any pharmacist … would risk arrest by federal agents and the loss of his or her federal license to dispense.”
The debate took place only two days after U.S. Attorney David B. Fein of Connecticut issued a strongly worded letter to two state senators about the bill.
“House Bill 5389 will create a licensing scheme that appears to permit large-scale marijuana cultivation and distribution, which would authorize conduct contrary to federal law and undermine the federal government’s efforts to regulate the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances,” Fein wrote. “Accordingly, the Department of Justice could consider civil and criminal legal remedies against those individuals and entities that set up marijuana growing facilities and dispensaries, as they will be doing so in violation of federal law.”
Fein focused directly on the potential sellers and distributors of marijuana, rather than those who would be using the drug. He noted in the letter that “the Department of Justice does not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law” across the country.
But some of Wednesday’s lengthy debate did not focus on the federal criminal aspects. State Rep. Christopher Lyddy, a Newtown Democrat, stood up and said he would support the bill because of his family circumstances and the illness of his late father.
“My father wanted just enough energy and comfort to hold his three new grandchildren,” Lyddy told his colleagues.
The biggest Republican proponent of the bill was Rep. Linda Marie “Penny” Bacchiochi, who has told the story about her purchase of marijuana since the 2003 debate. She has told legislators that her husband was dying of cancer and became a paraplegic after an operation to remove a tumor. Suffering intense pain, he could find no relief from a series of medications until a doctor recommended an unusual treatment: medical marijuana.
“This is an excellent bill,” she said on the House floor shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday. “For those who have been there for the past 10 years, you have heard numerous debates. … We’re not California, and we’re not Colorado. … We’re no longer asking patients to grow marijuana in their own home. … How are we going to get the first seed? We don’t have to talk about that any more.”
“I share many of the concerns that have been brought up over the years,” she said. “We are going to have producers with an expertise in this matter and dispensaries that are going to be licensed by a licensed pharmacist. … Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is a very stringent bill that if passed will be the most stringent in the United States. … The patient will have to have a certification by a doctor … that no other prescription medication will solve the problem.”
After one year, the patient would need to return to the doctor to re-qualify for the marijuana prescription. Only one caregiver is allowed for each marijuana patient in most cases. The marijuana cannot be used in the presence of anybody under the age of 18, and only Connecticut residents could get the certificate in the state, according to the bill. There would be only 10 producers at a maximum to make the marijuana, and the nonrefundable application fee would be $25,000 to produce the marijuana, she said.
“It takes out the home-growing piece that so many of us had problems with in the past,” Bacchiochi said. “It cannot be used in the workplace. … If you are a business and you have an employee, you cannot discriminate against an employee who holds that marijuana card.”
“We wanted pharmacy supervision of medical marijuana. This is what we wanted, and this is what this bill provides,” she said.
“I can’t speak to the conflict with federal law,” she said, adding that she believes the laws are working in 16 states. “I’m not an attorney.”
“I fully understand why any legislator would vote no on this bill,” she said. “But let’s not forget the benefits.”
Bacchiochi reiterated the testimony of a woman who had a patch that was “27 times more potent than pure heroin” that did not help her as much as medical marijuana did.
“Marijuana gave that boy a mother,” Bacchiochi said, adding that the woman’s condition improved with medical marijuana. She said that some legislators will vote with their head, and some will vote with their heart.
“I know I will have done the right thing,” said Bacchiochi, who did not mention her personal situation or her late husband during the debate.
State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, the dean of the House Republican caucus, said his wife has had “very painful shoulder surgery,” but “this piece of legislation is not the solution.”
Based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the federal government – and not the states – maintains the control over the issue, O’Neill said.
“This bill, this amendment, violates federal law on its face,” said Rep. John Shaban, a Republican attorney from Redding. “It’s a bad policy. … We have a bad public policy. We have a bad public process. … At the end of the day, we’re going to have a body of law that is almost unenforceable.”
The bill prevents all prison inmates and anyone under the age of 17 from obtaining medical marijuana to relieve their pain, regardless of the extent of their illness.
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 to 71 in a historic vote, but it has never been signed into law. After being passed by both chambers in 2007, the bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Through the years, more legislators have come to support medical marijuana, but many still had concerns Wednesday night regarding federal law.
“When you start out with a law that is federally illegal, you end up with a hodgepodge,” said Rep. Themis Klarides, a deputy Republican leader.
The debate on House Bill 5389, concerning the palliative use of marijuana for patients aged 18 and older, started at 4:04 p.m. Wednesday and lasted for more than five hours.
“Over the last several years or longer, the judiciary committee has raised and debated and voted at times on the use of medical marijuana,” said Rep. Gerald Fox III of Stamford, the co-chairman of the judiciary committee.
He noted that patients have testified to the committee that “the best relief that they get for their pain, the best relief they get for their respective illnesses, has been the use of marijuana.”
Prescriptions, he said, have made the patients feel worse, and the only thing that they say can relieve their pain is marijuana. Nationwide, 16 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted a form of medical marijuana laws.
“The federal government does not say that they cannot prosecute or they will not prosecute,” Fox said.
The House debated a strike-all amendment, known officially as LCO 3891, that became the bill.
By a vote of 79-64, the House decided in 2003 against allowing Connecticut to join eight other states that say marijuana can relieve pain for people suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and severe muscle spasms.
On Wednesday, House Republican leader Larry Cafero said the 2012 bill was far different from the 2003 version.
Cafero questioned whether post-traumatic stress disorder was a mental or physical disorder. Through his questioning, Cafero elicited answers that some doctors consider medical marijuana to be helpful, while others do not. The bill mentions a month’s supply of marijuana.
“Each illness might have a different supply,” Fox said. “All of that would have to be done through the regulations process.”
“I’m not sure there’s an official marijuana expert out there,” Cafero said, referring to the different amounts that different patients would need.
“When I go to a doctor now to get a prescription, they measure in milligrams and give me a 30-day, 60-day, or 90-day supply,” Cafero said. “We have a bill that says a patient is entitled to a month’s supply of marijuana.”
Cafero said the bill is breaking new ground, saying that “a month’s supply” is not a specific amount.
The bill prevents all prison inmates and anyone under the age of 17 from obtaining medical marijuana to relieve their pain, regardless of the extent of their illness.
“If you’re 17 and you have cancer, you can’t get marijuana to help you out?” Cafero asked on the House floor.
“That’s correct,” Fox responded.
Cafero asked if an employee is a qualified medical marijuana user, then what would happen if he needs to smoke it throughout the day at work?
“It seems contradictory in this piece of legislation,” Cafero said. “The employer is in this dilemma. … I can’t let the guy smoke weed all day long during the work day.”
Fox responded that employers cannot discriminate in terms of hiring practices.
In another case, an 18-year-old student from California could come to a Connecticut college and smoke medical marijuana. “You’re putting our universities and schools in an awkward position,” Cafero said. “It’s not clear here. … There is so much to this bill that we do not know yet.”
Last year, the legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
As the expulsion order for the Norwalk public schools, Cafero said the number of cases involving marijuana “has gone through the roof” – in a move related to the decriminalization that was supported by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
He said that public school teachers have told him “we knew who the stoners were. They were quiet and docile and sometimes they would sleep. Now, they’re more aggressive. … They told me it’s because the sellers are lacing it with far stronger drugs. … Now, they don’t test the stuff because it’s only an infraction. … How do we know what’s in the stuff? There’s a lot of unknowns.”
In a 2004 debate on the House floor, Cafero said some people might wrongly dismiss the use of medical marijuana because they have the attitude that they “used to put on a Jethro Tull album, light up a bone. What’s the big deal? We turned out all right.”
State Rep. Prasad Srinivasan of Glastonbury, a medical doctor for the past 30 years who received his medical degree in India, had some concerns about the limits of the supply of marijuana for a month. He said it was “very disturbing” that some patients could pay for the treatment themselves, while those being covered by federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid would not be able to receive the treatment because medical marijuana is not legalized on a national basis.
“This is not an issue we should be discussing at the state level,” he said. “It belongs where it belongs at the federal level.”
Rep. Pamela Sawyer, a Bolton Republican, said she had heard “fascinating debate” from knowledgeable lawmakers. She said she knew a 180-pound male who, six months later, was down to 80 pounds because of illness and experienced “great, great pain.”
Rep. Steven Mikutel, a conservative Democrat from southeastern Connecticut, said he has grave concerns about the issue in opposing the bill.
“I worry about the message we’re sending to young people. The headline will probably read: Legislators Legalize Pot for Some,” Mikutel said. “I am not convinced by the medical experts that it does what some medical experts say it does. I am concerned that the Connecticut State Medical Society opposes the bill.”
State Rep. John Hetherington of New Canaan said, “This is not a question to be easily dismissed. This is a big deal.”
State Rep. Al Adinolfi, a Cheshire Republican, asked if the user would be subject to federal prosecution.
“The answer to any question with the federal laws is the federal laws still exist and would potentially be enforced,” Fox responded, adding that ”there’s been limited prosecutions” regarding the marijuana laws in the 16 other states where medical marijuana has been approved.
“We shouldn’t even be discussing this bill,” Adinolfi responded. “The use of medical marijuana can hide symptoms that need medical attention.”
It “could lead to premature death, as it happened in my family,” Adinolfi said.
The following is a report from the 2003 House debate in The Hartford Courant:
Several legislators spoke passionately about family members who have suffered in their final days, while others said the bill was actually a back-door maneuver to open huge loopholes and lead to the legalization of a banned drug.
The bill would have allowed doctors to certify that a patient needed marijuana for medical purposes. The bill also would have allowed patients to cultivate a limited number of marijuana plants, but would have forbidden marijuana smoking in public, in the presence of minors or by anyone younger than 18.
Sponsors admitted they could not find a way to provide for medical users to legally obtain marijuana seeds for cultivation.
Then-state Rep. Robert Farr, a West Hartford Republican, said during the 2003 debate that passing the bill would have sent a false message that marijuana is not harmful. Another problem, he said, is that marijuana is not helpful for a series of illnesses mentioned in the bill.
“Show me a doctor who prescribes smoking marijuana for glaucoma, and I would like to see his medical malpractice bill,” said Farr, an attorney. “I consider this a cruel hoax.”
Some legislators questioned how patients could obtain marijuana legally. They charged that the patient would need to break the law in order to obtain the seeds to grow the marijuana plants.
“I go out on the corner with Little Johnny Junkie, and I have to deal with him to buy the drug,” said then-state Rep. John Wayne Fox, a Stamford Democrat. “This bill is about legalizing marijuana.”
A freshman legislator, Linda Marie “Penny” Bacchiochi of Somers, brought the 151-member House chamber to silence in 2003 when she said that no anti-nausea medications would help her husband when he was suffering from terminal bone cancer. After an operation, he became a paraplegic and suffered intense pain.
“A courageous doctor took us aside, and he told us that my husband needed to try marijuana,” said Bacchiochi, 41. “It was obtained at great legal risk to my family, but it worked, and it worked wonders. And it gave him back some quality of life. I will always remember how my husband suffered, and I will always remember if this legislature had passed a bill like this, he would have suffered less.”
State lawmakers waded into the highly volatile debate despite a national controversy and a unanimous ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 that made medical marijuana illegal.
The debate has a long and memorable history in Connecticut, going back to 1981 when two young legislators named John Rowland and Moira Lyons were serving in their first year as lawmakers in the House. They both voted for a bill that allowed physicians to write prescriptions for medical marijuana, but no Connecticut doctors have done that in the ensuing 22 years because federal law prevents it, lawmakers said.
During that 1981 debate, state Rep. Robert C. Sorensen of Meriden was credited with helping save the bill from defeat when he announced that he was undergoing “the horrors of chemotherapy” as the result of colon cancer. Several years later, his claim was discounted when he admitted that he had lied in another speech about having served in the Vietnam War.