PROVIDENCE - In a powerful show of support, the Senate Tuesday voted 34-2 to allow Rhode Islanders to smoke marijuana to ease the symptoms of debilitating illnesses.
The vote came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal laws against marijuana use trump states' medical marijuana laws. The decision overturned a 2003 federal appeal court ruling that California's medical marijuana law prevented federal law enforcement officials from prosecuting those with marijuana prescriptions.
Sponsored by Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, the legislation would direct the Department of Health to issue licenses to patients diagnosed with "a debilitating medical condition," including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Qualifying patients would be able to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana without fear of state prosecution. The bill also would exempt two "primary caregivers" who would help the patient procure marijuana.
The Senate amended the bill to title it the Edward O. Hawkins Medical Marijuana Act in honor of Perry's nephew, who suffered for several years before dying of AIDS in 2004. Marijuana might have eased her nephew's "morphine induced dementia" and "ever-present pain," Perry said.
The bill also was changed to exempt practitioners, nurses and pharmacists from prosecution if they discuss the benefits or health risks of smoking marijuana with their patients.
Rep. Thomas C. Slater, D-Providence, the sponsor of the House version of the legislation and a cancer survivor, was overjoyed with the lopsided vote.
"This isn't about federal court rulings," Slater said. "This is about compassion for people who need help."
Slater said his bill will be amended to mirror the Senate bill and he expects the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee to pass the bill, possibly next week.
If the full House follows suit it will have to do so by a veto-proof margin since Gov. Donald L. Carcieri has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Carcieri is taking no position on the medical benefits or health risks of smoking marijuana, his spokesman Jeff Neal said. The governor's objections are all on legal grounds, Neal said.
"This would give Rhode Islanders a false sense of security, placing them in jeopardy of federal prosecution," Neal said, noting the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Monday.