CONCORD — After years of trying, proponents of medical marijuana received a boost Wednesday when the House voted overwhelmingly, 286-64, in support of establishing a New Hampshire program.
House Bill 573 allows the terminally and chronically ill or those with debilitating conditions to use marijuana to help relieve their conditions.
Proponents say this will help many people who now suffer needlessly because other medications fail to relieve them of the pain and suffering of terminal illnesses.
Rep. Donald "Ted" Wright, R-Tuftonborough, said his wife used marijuana to combat the side effects of a drug that essentially cured her of breast cancer.
She participated in a clinical trial and was told she would have to stop taking the drug, even though it was working, because the nausea and vomiting were causing her to lose too much weight.
She tried marijuana and it solved her problem instantly, Wright said. "This is a tightly crafted bill that will help those patients that really need it," Wright said.
But opponents, such as the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and some medical officials, say legal medical marijuana is a problem for law enforcement officials, who have trouble distinguishing between recreational and medical users.
They also said debate on the subject tends to make the drug more acceptable and will lead to more widespread use of marijuana and other controlled drugs.
Rep. John Cebrowski, R-Bedford, said there are better drugs than marijuana to address side effects. He said the program would stretch law enforcement in the state and would encourage young people to use marijuana and other illegal drugs.
"I believe in compassionate care through good medicine, not bad medicine ... not home-grown deliveries," he said.
"America is currently a drug-soaked culture with both prescription and illegal drugs. This exacerbates the problem. I do not want to be part of the cultural and social disintegration of our state."
Rep. Stephen Schmidt, R-Wolfeboro, heads a sub-committee of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee to revise the bill. He said the program would be the most tightly controlled in the country.
"This bill will only assist 600 to 800 patients; that is the universe we are talking about," Schmidt said "This will not be the California experience of a head shop on every corner."
He said the program is intended to help people who are in great pain, suffering from their diseases and not responding to traditional medicine.
The governor's position
Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she supports medical marijuana, but has not said what she would do with the current bill.
Her communications director, Marc Goldberg, said: "The governor believes any measure permitting the use of medically prescribed marijuana must ensure that the method of distribution is safe and tightly regulated and has concerns about the ability to properly regulate a home-grow option, but she will continue to listen to the concerns of advocates, law enforcement and legislators as the process moves forward."
After the vote, Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said: "This overwhelming vote comes as a great relief to patients who have been waiting years to legally follow their doctors' advice. Patients should not have to live in fear of arrest in the 'Live Free or Die' state, and it's a great relief for them to see such strong, bipartisan support from the House."
Illness and symptoms
The bill lists illnesses that qualify, such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and hepatitis C, and the permissible conditions — such as significant weight loss, severe pain or wasting syndrome — for a patient to qualify for medical marijuana. Patients would have to have both the illness and symptoms.
Patients would be allowed to grow up to three marijuana plants and 12 seedlings or purchase up to six ounces of the drug at dispensaries.
But the bill does not protect patients who drive under the influence of the drug, nor does it protect anyone from prosecution under federal law.
The program would serve only New Hampshire residents; someone would have to be a doctor's patient for three months before he or she could qualify. Bill drafters say that would end the doctor-shopping other states have experienced.
The bill establishes an advisory committee to make a recommendation to the legislature if the program should continue after five years. The bill now goes to the Senate for action.
A similar bill passed the House and Senate last year, but was vetoed by former Gov. John Lynch.