By Daniela Altimari, The Hartford Courant –
HARTFORD, Conn.—The Connecticut Senate was locked in a marathon debate late Friday on a bill to legalize and regulate the medical use of marijuana.
Although lawmakers have pondered the issue several times in the past decade, Democratic Sen. Eric Coleman said that this year’s bill was superior to previous versions. The measure passed the House of Representatives on April 25.
The bill “emphasizes regulation and oversight and controls,” Coleman, co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said moments after the debate began at 4:48 p.m.
Under the bill, “there are restrictions every step of the way,” said GOP Sen. John Kissel, who backs the measure.
Although the measure was expected to pass, Republican critics filed 48 amendments in an effort to derail it.
Leading the charge for the opposition was Sen. Toni Boucher, who began speaking before 6 p.m. and was still going strong at 10 p.m. Boucher, a Republican, cited studies, statistics and anecdotes in her filibuster before a largely empty chamber.
“I guess I’ve spent some time trying to convince you that … this is the wrong direction,” Boucher said at one point. Just six of 36 senators were in the room and the galleries above both sides of the ornate Senate circle were devoid of spectators.
Boucher, who views marijuana as a “gateway drug” that destroys lives, offered to drop her opposition if lawmakers amended the bill to limit medical marijuana use only to those facing a terminal illness. That amendment — the first of the 48 to come up for a vote — failed, 23-11, at 10:30 p.m.
At 11:20 p.m., senators voted on the second amendment, which would have excluded glaucoma patients from using medicinal pot. Like the earlier effort to change the bill; this one also failed, on a vote of 24-10.
Unlike other states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, notably California and Colorado, Connecticut would tightly regulate the drug’s use, advocates say. To qualify, patients would need a physician’s certification that they have a debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy.
Marijuana would be dispensed only by pharmacists who obtained a special license. Qualifying patients and their primary caregivers would be required to register with the Department of Consumer Protection.
The debate in Connecticut has changed sharply since 2003, when the measure failed on the floor of the House after an emotional debate. The proposal passed one year later, in 2004, by a vote of 75-71, but it has never been signed into law. After being passed by both chambers in 2007, the bill was vetoed by 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. They also heard harrowing, deeply personal stories from people coping with chronic and serious illnesses about the role that marijuana plays in their medical treatment.
“There has been a sea change over the last decade,” Kissel said.
Boucher is not convinced. Legalizing medical marijuana would send a devastating message to young people, Boucher said.
“There are reams of data that speak to the cost of the state due to the unhealthy effects of marijuana,” she said.
Long-term marijuana use, she said, also affects the heart and lungs and causes problems with infertility in men; in addition, it leads to increased depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, she said. Marijuana users 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.
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.”