Connecticut Poised to Legalize Medical Marijuana
A bill legalizing medical marijuana passed in the Connecticut Senate, ensuring Connecticut will become the 17th state, along with the District of Columbia, to approve such a measure. Governor Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to sign the bill into law.
The Senate approved the bill 21 to 13 following a debate that extended into the early morning hours. The push for medical marijuana legalization gained momentum after Connecticut decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana last year.
“Eighteen months ago, I wrote a five-year plan with the goal to decriminalize possession and legalize medical marijuana,” said Erik Williams, Executive Director of Connecticut NORML, the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “I would have never dreamed we could do it as quickly as we did.”
With Connecticut joining its medical marijuana-friendly neighbors Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont, it’s possible that all of New England will approve the practice in 2012. Massachusetts voters are expected to approve a medical marijuana initiative at the polls this November, and New Hampshire’s lawmakers are close to finalizing their own legislation. New Hampshire’s Gov. John Lynch has promised to veto the bill, as he did with a similar medical marijuana bill in 2009. But the Senate came within two votes of overriding that veto, and the upcoming showdown is expected to be similarly close.
Keeping Peace With the Feds
Connecticut will control its medical marijuana system with some of the tightest regulations in the nation, a strategy designed to help the state avoid the federal raids that have plagued medical marijuana businesses in California.
California’s comparatively relaxed system has generated a multi-billion dollar marijuana industry powered in part by large farms and dispensaries. As we’ve reported on Lawyers.com, the federal government has been cracking down on such large-scale facilities, accusing them of using ambiguous state laws as cover for major drug trafficking operations.
The crackdown began last year, when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice reversed course on a previous policy of tolerating “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” The DOJ later amended its position, stating that while patients and caregivers may not warrant their attention, they would still pursue “commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana” without regard to state laws.
“We’re in a gray zone with marijuana, especially with medical usage,” said Keith Stroup, NORML’s founder and legal counsel. “When you’re operating in a gray market, I would strongly recommend you not attempt to be the Wal-Mart of medical marijuana dispensaries. It doesn’t make sense to draw that much attention to yourself. Those people willing to remain modest in size will probably be left alone by the federal government, but nobody knows that for certain.”
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Under Connecticut’s new law, the Department of Consumer Protection will oversee the registration of medical marijuana patients and the licensing of pharmacists to dispense the herb. Physicians will only be able prescribe marijuana for specific conditions including cancer, AIDS and glaucoma, though a panel of doctors will be able to amend the list of approved medical uses. The law also requires physicians to have “bona fide physician-patient relationships” with the patients for whom they write marijuana prescriptions, in an effort to avoid so-called “pot docs” who can be relied upon to write prescriptions for any interested patient.
Williams hopes that Connecticut’s decision to distribute medical marijuana through licensed pharmacists will ease the concerns of the general public as well as the feds.
“There are those who don’t perceive marijuana as medicine, but those people are used to getting their medicine from pharmacists,” Williams said. “Pharmacist-run dispensaries will also be able to provide expertise that other dispensaries cannot. For example, they’ll be able to know what other drugs patients are taking and can warn of potential interactions.”
A New National Model?
If the Connecticut system proves successful in avoiding tension with the federal government, it could become a model for states where medical marijuana efforts have stalled over fears of federal raids.
Such fear was on display during the debate over the Connecticut bill, where medical marijuana opponents emphasized a letter from David Fein, U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, that reiterated the DOJ’s intent to prosecute marijuana growers and distributors. Williams doesn’t perceive this as a threat to Connecticut’s law, however.
“They have to say they’ll enforce the law,” Williams said. “They don’t have the constitutional authority to make policy decisions and say otherwise.”
Even so, some states with existing medical marijuana laws have reined in their programs out of caution. In Washington, which legalized medical marijuana in 1998, Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed a bill establishing a licensing system and patient registry, citing concerns about possible federal prosecution of state employees. Delaware governor Jack Markell and Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee have likewise suspended work on their in-progress registration programs after U.S. Attorneys suggested that state employees might be prosecuted for money laundering.
These recent developments complicate an ever-changing patchwork of state marijuana laws. Williams hopes to see even more changes coming soon to states where medical marijuana is legal, but for-profit growers and dispensaries are prohibited. In these states, patients and caregivers are left to grow their own medicine.
“It is discriminatory for medical marijuana states to not have dispensaries,” Williams said. “If someone has never even grown a geranium, asking them to grow medical grade marijuana is just silly.”
Do you think the federal government should legalize medical marijuana? Should medical marijuana distributors and growers be immune from federal prosecution in states where the drug has been legalized? Share your opinion by leaving a comment below.