Just after he was diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 2007, Bobbie Ebert was suffering from a fresh burst of chronic back pain, so he went down to Providence's south side to stock up on some medicine. "I went down to Providence to try to get some pot because that was the only thing that could get rid of my pain," he told the Independent.
Ebert's doctor has previously prescribed him opiates, Vicodin and Percoset, for his pain, which is the result of several unsuccessful back surgeries. But their side effects were nearly as debilitating as the pain itself. "They make you depressed," he recalled. "They make you not want to live. It's horrible." By smoking marijuana, he said he could both control his pain and remain active enough to lead his life.
While Ebert was headed to the city to find someone on the street to sell him marijuana, the Rhode Island state legislature was considering the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act, which would permit doctors to recommend the drug to patients suffering from a debilitating condition. Since its passage in 2007, however, licensed patients and their designated caregivers have realized the act's major flaw: it lacked provisions for safe, convenient access to their necessary medicine. Currently, patients with the assistance of designated caretakers must either grow their own marijuana at home--an expensive, difficult and time-consuming proposition--or purchase it illegally.
Ebert has felt this omission acutely. After he found someone who was apparently willing to sell him some marijuana and had handed over his money, four men came out from behind a fence. "We got into an argument, and they started picking on me," Ebert said. "One thing led to another, and then I got robbed."
Two years after Ebert left Providence, the Rhode Island General Assembly is considering two major revisions to the state's drug laws. Not only are legislators considering an amendment to the medical marijuana law that would allow the creation of non-profit 'compassion centers,' which would dispense the drug to licensed patients, but they are also considering changing the law for non-medical use and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
However, the American government continues to classify marijuana as a schedule I drug along with heroin, LSD and PCP so both of these bills (and Rhode Island's existing medical marijuana law) conflict with federal drug law.
Jesse Stout B'06, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, is optimistic that the problem of safe access will soon be solved. The legislature is currently weighing a proposed revision to the original Medical Marijuana Act that would direct the Rhode Island Department of Health to begin the process of establishing the state's first non-profit compassion center.
Last year, a similar compassion center bill passed the Rhode Island State Senate 30-5 but failed to pass the State House of Representatives.
This year, however, Stout expects things to go better. "Our outlook is extremely positive," he told the Independent. "We are confident about this bill this year." The first time the House considered the bill, opponents of the legislation did not want to pass a bill that would violate federal drug policy. Last year, the Bush administration was still directing the DEA to raid medicinal marijuana dispensaries in California, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision giving them the right. Rhode Island legislators were reluctant to embroil their state in a similar mess.
According to Stout, Attorney General Holder's decision last month to stop federal agents from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries allayed legislators' fears.
On March 25, however, the Obama administration's commitment to ending DEA enforcement action was tested when federal agents stormed into Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco and confiscated its marijuana, cannabis plants, grow lights, and other horticultural equipment.
Even though it is not clear what the recent San Francisco raid indicates about the state of federal drug policy, Stout is neither concerned that it will derail RIPAC's effort to get the compassion center through the legislature, nor worried that Rhode Island's compassion centers would face the same problems.
"The California dispensaries have the problem that they face a patchwork of legal codes. They've got federal, state, county and city laws that are sometimes completely different on medical marijuana," said Stout. This confusion is compounded by the fact that dispensaries in California do not need state licenses in order to operate. "Here in Rhode Island we hope to create a uniform state regulation system where a non-profit CC has clear Department of Health codes governing its whole existence," he added.
Broad support for the bill notwithstanding, Governor Donald Carcieri B'65 is expected to veto the compassion center amendment, as he did to the original medical marijuana bill in 2007. The governor's office declined to comment on pending legislation.
While the amendment to Rhode Island's medical marijuana law would make it easier for registered patients to get their medicine, it says nothing about the law for non-medical use. But legal help may also be on the way for the state's recreational marijuana users in the form of a broad decriminalization of the drug.
In February, state senator Leo Blais (R-Coventry) introduced the Sensible State Marijuana Policy Act, which is nearly identical to the decriminalization law approved by Massachusetts' voters last November. If enacted, the law would reduce the penalty for adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana from misdemeanor (which carries up to a year in jail and a $500 fine) to a civil penalty with a $100 fine. Offenders would also be forced to forfeit their marijuana. In addition to these penalties, juveniles would be compelled to attend a drug awareness program and perform community service.
The law also contains a provision that grants blanket immunities for people caught with marijuana. It not only prevents them from being disqualified for student financial aid, government assistance, subsidized housing and child custody, but also forbids the government from storing any information about the incident in any database of criminal information.
"This was something that was really driven from a combination of concern for highway safety and a potential revenue source for the state," Blais said in an interview. Proponents argue that this policy change would eliminate millions of dollars in correctional fees from the state budget, which is currently running a $357 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30.
"When you look at the way the statute works, if you have a headache, then you can get a prescription for medical marijuana. So let's not kid ourselves that there's an unusual burden for someone to be able to procure legal marijuana in this state," Blais said. "With that in mind, we need to start looking out for increased marijuana usage in the citizenry. We need to look at highway safety, the cost to the state of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of individuals convicted of possession."
The decriminalization bill is currently awaiting approval from the state Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Blais said that he expects the bill has a "50-50" chance of passing before the General Assembly adjourns for the summer in June.
The superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, Colonel Brendan Doherty, is the strongest--and apparently only--public opponent of the decriminalization bill. "I am vehemently opposed to this bill for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to my opinion that this type of legislation could degenerate society as a result of the permissive culture it will create," he wrote in a letter to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. "By passing this bill, it sends a mixed message to the youth of our state."
While Doherty agreed that decriminalization would reduce the state's spending on corrections, he rejected the idea that these savings should override other considerations. "From my perspective we don't need to compromise on our values as a society to try to save the incarceration rate or to cut down on our arrests because some people take it upon themselves to break the law," he said in an interview.
If legislators decide to decriminalize marijuana, Rhode Island will become the fourteenth state to reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug, according to NORML.org, the website of a marijuana reform interest group. Since 1996, thirteen states have passed laws that protect medical marijuana patients from criminal charges. But the federal government remains the major obstacle to comprehensive reform.
Yet, the Obama administration's positions on drug law may soon be tested. San Francisco assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently introduced a bill to the California State Assembly that would legalize marijuana for adults more than 21 years old in order to not only regulate its cultivation and sale but also collect state excise taxes.
Though no one in Rhode Island has proposed transforming the state's illegal marijuana sales into a source of government revenue, RIPAC has been overrun with calls from people who are planning to apply for the first compassion center license should the bill pass the assembly. "All kinds of people are applying for the non-profit compassion center license," Stout said. "It seems like everyone wants to be the first one."
NICK WERLE B'10 does not read High Times. He looks at the pictures.