Testimony kicks off latest effort to legalize medical marijuana in N.H.
For some of the patients, law enforcement officials and advocates who spoke during a nearly four-hour House committee hearing yesterday on medical marijuana, it wasn’t their first time. Similar bills have passed the Legislature twice in the last four years, only to fall to gubernatorial vetoes.
But there was a sense yesterday at the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee that this could be the year New Hampshire joins the rest of New England in allowing the medicinal use of marijuana, despite the fact it remains illegal under federal law.
“Today begins what so many of us hope will be the final chapter in creating a law to give safe, legal access to an alternative treatment for disease-stricken patients,” said Evelyn Merrick, a former Democratic state representative from Lancaster who sponsored three medical marijuana bills before losing her seat last year. “Herbal marijuana has been proven to bring comfort and pain relief, and minimize suffering, for so many of our sickest and terminally ill patients.”
Hope and opposition
Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia allow the medicinal use of marijuana, including the five other New England states.
Eight medical marijuana bills have been introduced in New Hampshire since 1998. Twice, in 2009 and 2012, bills passed the Legislature but were vetoed by then-Gov. John Lynch. In both cases, attempts to override Lynch’s veto fell short of the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate.
But Lynch was replaced this year by fellow Democrat Maggie Hassan, who has said she supports legalizing medical marijuana. That’s given new hope to advocates that, if a bill makes it through the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate, it would be signed into law by Hassan.
The bill introduced this year by Rep. Donna Schlachman, an Exeter Democrat, is co-sponsored by nine other representatives and four senators. It would allow patients, with a doctor’s certification and a state-issued registry card, to possess up to two ounces of marijuana without fear of arrest or other punishment.
The bill would limit the program to patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis. It would allow patients to obtain marijuana from five licensed centers or grow it at home, though Hassan has indicated that latter provision could be a stumbling block.
“I do have concerns about going beyond a regulatory dispensing model,” she told The Telegraph of Nashua on Wednesday.
But broader concerns were aired during yesterday’s hearing by opponents of the medical marijuana bill, including the attorney general’s office, the state Department of Safety, the New Hampshire Medical Society and the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
Those concerns included the potential for proliferation of marijuana, especially among youth, and possible legal entanglements with the federal government.
Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock said the U.S. Justice Department isn’t showing much interest in going after medical marijuana users in states where it’s legal, but that could change under a new attorney general or administration.
After all, she said, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
“To the extent that this leads New Hampshire residents into believing that medical marijuana is legal, it misleads them,” Woodcock said.
And Dr. Seddon Savage, a former president of the New Hampshire Medical Society, said marijuana is an herb, not a medicine, and hasn’t gone through the usual review and approval process by the Food and Drug Administration. Supplies could be contaminated by pesticides or be otherwise unsafe.
“I don’t believe it’s in the interest of the citizens of New Hampshire to pass legislation which is opposed by leaders in the medical community and in the law enforcement community, who are the communities who are going to be tasked with implementation of this bill,” Savage said.
But emotional appeals came during yesterday’s hearing, which lasted nearly four hours, from advocacy groups, patients and their families. They argued that marijuana is safe and effective for patients suffering from pain or loss of appetite, without the side effects of traditional pain medications.
Susan Bruce of Dunbarton said her husband, David Emerson, who died in 2009, suffered pain and had trouble eating while undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.
But, she said, he found some relief after a friend brought him some marijuana.
“David shouldn’t have had to suffer and feel like he was breaking the law to get through a course of radiation,” Bruce said. “He wasn’t about to be going down to the schoolyard to sell drugs.”
She added, “We treat our dying pets better than we treat our dying people.”
Theresa Earle of Henniker said she uses marijuana to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder. She said, regardless of what federal law might say, a large majority of New Hampshire residents support medical marijuana. (A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll taken Jan. 30-Feb. 5 found 79 percent of residents supportive of medical marijuana and just 14 percent opposed, with a 4.1 percent margin of error.)
“That’s not a request. That’s a mandate,” Earle told the committee. “You don’t work for the federal government. You work for the people of New Hampshire. So I beg you, please pass this. I don’t want to live my life like a criminal.”
And Darlene Wilson, a Manchester woman with chronic pancreatitis, noted she’d spoken to the committee on previous bills. Her situation hasn’t changed, she said, except that she’s continued to lose weight, despite attempts to use FDA-approved medication with a synthetic form of cannabis.
“I’ve tried everything now, from the dronabinol to the Marinol to whatever they’ll give me that’s legal, and I’m losing ground at this point. Nothing is working,” Wilson said.
Marijuana, she added, is “my only hope at this point.”
The House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee is scheduled to debate and vote on the bill March 5.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)