Senate, House, Governor Disagree on Medicinal Marijuana

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(Host) Confusion surrounds legislation that would allow people with chronic illnesses to use marijuana for pain relief. A group of Senate leaders has drafted a compromise that they say Governor Howard Dean will support, but Dean says he is not ready to take that step.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Several weeks ago the House passed a medicinal marijuana bill. Under the legislation, patients with chronic diseases would be allowed to use marijuana as a pain killer with their doctor’s permission. Patients would be allowed to possess up to three ounces of marijuana and they could grow their own plants if they wanted to.

When the bill went over to the Senate a lot of questions were raised about the proposal. And Governor Howard Dean made it very clear that he would veto any legislation that legalized marijuana for any reason. Dean says he will only sign a bill if marijuana is approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration as a painkiller.

On Thursday, three Senate leaders ¿ Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears and Health and Welfare Chairwomen Nancy Chard ¿ unveiled a plan that they say meets all of their concerns.

The Senate plan still makes it illegal to use marijuana for pain relief but it allows anyone using it for this purpose to use what is called an affirmative defense in the unlikely event that they were charged with a crime. Shumlin says the compromise was drafted because the House plan is unacceptable:

(Shumlin) “If you want to lead a political campaign or a crusade for legalizing marijuana, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want to take care of folks who are suffering AIDS patients, folks with MS, folks with cancer ¿ you’ve come to the right place. We’re making a step forward that’s going to make a difference.”

(Kinzel) Shumlin said his conversations with Governor Howard Dean about the compromise led Shumlin to believe that Dean would sign the bill despite the governor’s longstanding opposition to the legislation. But at an afternoon press conference, Dean said he’s uncertain about the Senate plan:

(Dean) “But I can’t say right now, I don’t have a bill in front of me. I think things are in flux. We want to be cooperative, we want to be helpful. We certainly don’t want to deny people relief but I can’t surrender the scientific basis for using medications to a political process. And I will not legalize marijuana.”

(Kinzel) The sponsors of the original House bill strongly criticized the Senate compromise on Thursday afternoon. They oppose the plan because it still makes the medicinal use of marijuana illegal and it prohibits patients from growing their own plants.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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