Ridiculously Bad Medical Cannabis Bill Sent Back to House

Pot LeafMatt Simon has the story at the Concord Patch about how the supposedly medical cannabis-friendly governor Maggie Hassan demanded the medical bill be gutted. He discusses the awful provisions in the bill and then what happens next as it goes back to the house:

As the “therapeutic use of cannabis” bill (a.k.a. the medical marijuana bill) heads back to the House of Representatives after being gutted by the Senate, many state representatives, patients, and medical professionals have been contacting me, all asking the same question: “What the heck happened?!?!”

First, here’s a quick refresher on HB 573’s path through the House:

The House approved HB 573 in an overwhelming 286-64 vote March 20, sending forward a bill that would have created a responsible, well-crafted policy. Prior to that vote, the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee had dutifully listened to hours of public testimony, considered the arguments presented by all sides, and worked hard to improve a bill that would have served patients’ needs and granted them immediate legal protections. The committee voted 14-1 in favor of its final product, and over 80% of representatives supported the bill on the floor.

The House-approved version of HB 573 included the following features:

Qualifying patients would have been legally authorized to cultivate up to three mature plants in an enclosed, locked facility registered with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), or they could have selected a designated caregiver to do so on their behalf. (Home cultivation is a legal option for all qualifying patients in 14 states, including Maine and Vermont. Cultivation is also legal in Massachusetts for qualifying patients if they do not have access through a dispensary.)

Qualifying patients would have been protected by an affirmative defense provision as soon as the law passed. They could still be arrested, but they would be able to avoid a criminal conviction by presenting a doctor’s recommendation in court. Once the health department started issuing patients ID cards, patients would need an ID card to be protected from a conviction.

Following an 18-month rulemaking and selection process, five alternative treatment centers (ATCs) would have been authorized to grow and sell cannabis and related products to qualifying patients.

A similar bill, minus the five ATCs, had passed the House and Senate in 2012 with majority support in both parties and both chambers of the legislature. With a new and seemingly supportive governor in the corner office, patients were optimistic after the House vote that 2013 would be the year they finally received legal protections from the state.

Unfortunately, before the Senate Health, Education, and Human Services Committee could consider the bill on its merits, Gov. Maggie Hassan insisted on several changes. Supportive senators did not wish to see the bill get vetoed, so they had little choice but to accept the governor’s changes.

Gov. Hassan’s amendments were adopted by the committee in a 5-0 vote, with little discussion or debate, and the amended bill passed the Senate in an 18-6 vote May 23.

Here is a list of the changes made by the Senate, at Gov. Hassan’s request:

Home cultivation was removed from the bill. Cultivation of even a single plant would remain a felony, with no exceptions.

The number of alternative treatment centers was reduced from five to four. This further decreases the likelihood that patients will live near an alternative treatment center — their only legal source if home cultivation is not allowed.

The affirmative defense provisions were gutted so that the defense would only apply to patients with registry identification cards. Yet, it could take up to 19 months for the first ID cards to be issued. This means patients who are suffering today may not receive any legal protection whatsoever until late 2014 or early 2015. The affirmative defense provisions passed by the House would have protected qualifying patients from receiving a criminal conviction if they were prosecuted while waiting for the health department to get the program up and running.

Language was added requiring patients to have written permission of a property owner, or tenant of leased property, before they may use cannabis on the premises. It is reasonable to require permission, but requiring written permission is onerous and unnecessary.

Language was added that would prohibit patients from possessing cannabis within a “drug free zone” (such as within 1,000 feet of a school). This would mean a patient living within about three blocks of a school would not be legally allowed to possess or use cannabis,even in the privacy of his or her own home and even if the cannabis is not smoked. It would also mean any patient or caregiver transporting cannabis within two or three blocks of a school would be violating the law.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was removed as a qualifying condition. By contrast, the Oregon Legislature recently passed a bill that adds PTSD as a qualifying condition for the state’s medical marijuana law, and the governor is expected to sign it.

Finally, the Senate can’t have intended this, but confusing language was added to the “protections” section that would severely undermine the intent of the bill. It appears that patients would only be allowed to possess cannabis if they do not have a designated caregiver. Additionally, it appears that patients and caregivers would only be allowed to possess cannabis if they are at an alternative treatment center’s cultivation site. This language makes no sense and must be fixed or it does not appear the bill will be workable at all for patients (who will need to possess cannabis in their homes, etc.).

For these reasons, it is expected that the House will elect NOT to concur with the Senate’s amendments and will instead vote to form a “committee of conference” that will seek to reconcile differences between the House and Senate before sending the bill forward to the governor’s desk.

Patients are deeply saddened by Gov. Hassan’s insistence on these changes, but they remain hopeful that the bill can be improved before it moves forward to her desk to receive her signature.