Medical Marijuana Patients Concerned About Senate Bill 791

We talked to The Rhode Island Patient Assistance Coalitions’ JoAnne Leppanen about a proposed bill in the Senate that has a lot of caregivers and medical marijuana patients concerned. She not only shared their concerns, but gave us a quick history of medical marijuana in RI.

“The original legalization of medical marijuana was really an act of compassion on the part of the legislature,” says Leppanen. Yes, recreational users were getting arrested – but so were patients for whom the drug provided a sometimes life-altering treatment option. “It was a big deal in 2006, when it became legal for licensed patients to use marijuana,” she explains. There was an awkward period during which use was legal, but selling or purchasing was not. “Where were they supposed to get it?” asks Leppanen, pointing out that not everyone has the skills to grow their own.

So the legislature decided to allow caregivers – people who could grow for a small number of patients. These caregivers are licensed, over 21, without criminal records, and act only with the consent of their patients. As described by Leppanen, these caregivers are usually drawn to the opportunity to alleviate suffering, and are especially valued by patients whose conditions may make it hard for them to travel, communicate or take on jobs with health insurance.

“We have some phenomenal caregivers who really help their patients,” she says, describing caregivers who pursue much smaller margins – or no margins – to help patients in particularly challenging situations.

These caregivers would all be made immediately illegal if Senate Bill 791 were to pass. This bill proposes that only licensed growers would be allowed to grow cannabis. Before you say, “that could make sense,” the bill further suggests that there be only two licensed growers in the state, and that they could only sell to licensed compassion centers (currently three in RI). These two growers would apply for state licenses – but why only two, and why it seems a good idea to grant these two what amounts to a state-approved monopoly is unclear. Could it be to position them for a future, post-legalization market?

Leppanen declines to speculate – especially when it comes to any discussion of legalization. “We’re about the medical care and supporting those whose medical conditions are effectively treated by cannabis,” she says. “This bill would undermine the most basic tenet, the primary intent of the medical marijuana program. The compassion centers are great – there’s definitely a crucial role that they fill – but many of the patients who greatly need medical marijuana are on SSDI or disabled. Their income is limited, and there is no third-party reimbursement for medical marijuana. A compassion center has overhead and employees – it has to run like a business. It can’t provide the same attention, the same prices, the same access for those who can’t get to centers, and the same room for individual grace that caregivers can. Caregivers are the unsung heroes of the medical marijuana movement,” she explains. And this bill would end them.

“So … why, exactly, do we need this,” she asks, “and who would it help?”

The bill has not passed the Senate Judicial Committee and has no corresponding bill in the House – two steps that would be necessary before the legislature could vote on it. But there seems to be some heavy lobbying support behind it, and a cadre of senators backing it.

You can learn more at ripatients.org, where they include links to the proposed statute itself.

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