White House advisor testifies against Vermont medical marijuana bill

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(Host) A key White House drug policy advisor urged members of the House Health and Welfare Committee to reject legislation allowing the medicinal use of marijuana. Doctor Andrea Barthwell says the proposal has no medical benefits and will encourage young people to try marijuana.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The legislation under consideration would allow people with chronic and debilitating illnesses to use marijuana if their doctor determines that legal drugs will not be successful in treating pain and other problems.

Dr. Barthwell, who’s a specialist in illegal drug use, came to Vermont at the request of Governor Jim Douglas, who opposes this legislation. Dr. Barthwell says allowing the medicinal use of marijuana sends the wrong message to young people about drug use and she doubts that marijuana has any positive medical benefits:

(Barthwell) “I have trouble as a physician recommending a crude botanical as medicine if it has not gone through the rigorous process of review that protects the public health that we established at the turn of the century to protect citizens of this country from snake oil.”

(Kinzel) The legislation also allows patients to grow up to three marijuana plants for their own use. Dr. Barthwell says this is far more than they need and she’s concerned that excess marijuana will be sold to young people:

(Barthwell) “You might have six people in Vermont who have four mature plants or three mature plants who can provide through increased availability to huge populations of individuals.”

(Kinzel) Burlington Representative David Zuckerman, who’s the lead sponsor of the bill, thinks Barthwell’s message is one of fear not fact:

(Zuckerman) “If you look at Colorado and you look at other states that have similar laws, the number of people who are using marijuana for medical purposes is fairly small, and the increase in drug use or decrease in drug use hasn’t changed because of this kind of law. And you know, we’ve heard a lot of these kinds of fear around this law and frankly there’s no facts to back them up.”

(Kinzel) And Zuckerman says patients using marijuana are very unlikely to become sellers of the drug, as Barthwell claims:

(Zuckerman) “Well I think people really need to look at who it is who would be using the marijuana and what they’d be growing for. When you’re 74 years old and you’ve got cancer, you’re not going to be out on the street selling extra marijuana.”

(Kinzel) The future of the bill is uncertain. The chair of the committee, Barre Town Representative Tom Koch, who opposes the legislation, says his panel needs to take a lot more testimony on the plan. But Koch says this will be difficult because the committee has several other key bills to deal with before adjournment. Despite Koch’s concerns, backers of the bill are likely to call for a committee vote in the next 10 days.

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

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