When Penny Bacchiochi's husband was dying of cancer, an operation to remove a tumor on his spine left him a paraplegic. Suffering intense pain, he could find no relief from a series of medications until a doctor recommended an unusual treatment: smoking marijuana.
That was more than 20 years ago, and Bacchiochi is now a state legislator. She told her story Wednesday at the state Capitol, helping persuade her colleagues to approve the use of medical marijuana for patients with debilitating conditions.

On a historic vote, the House of Representatives voted 75 to 71 to allow sick patients to use marijuana for medical purposes without fear of being arrested.

"I know that I had to risk prosecution and the fear of having a criminal record, but I did it because I would have done anything to see someone that I loved find relief," Bacchiochi said on the floor of the House. "And I think any one of you who had been in my position would have done the exact same thing."

Although the vote Wednesday represented a major victory for advocates of medical marijuana, the bill's future remains unclear. After its passage, the bill was referred to the legislature's finance committee. If passed by the committee as early as today, the bill would need to be approved by the House again and then by the Senate before the legislative session ends at midnight Wednesday.

Still, Bacchiochi, a 42-year-old Somers Republican in her first term, had a big smile on her face after the vote.

"Honestly, after the debate, I didn't think it would pass," Bacchiochi said, noting the strong opposition by many veteran legislators.

Most of the top leaders - including House Speaker Moira K. Lyons, Majority Leader James Amann, and Republican leader Robert Ward - all voted against the bill.

The opponents said the bill was essentially a back door maneuver for legalizing marijuana, which they described as a dangerous drug.

Opponents said that most of the major medical associations - including the American Cancer Society, the American Glaucoma Society and the American Academy of Ophthalmology - have never endorsed the use of medical marijuana. The American Medical Association, officials said, has taken a neutral position.

Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, said that the medical uses of marijuana have been overblown, saying there is more harm than good.

"I believe this bill is essentially a cruel hoax," Farr said. "Taking marijuana does not help people with glaucoma. It actually damages the eye. ... It is a dangerous drug."

Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said some people might wrongly dismiss the use of marijuana because they have the attitude that they "used to put on a Jethro Tull album, light up a bone. What's the big deal? We turned out all right."

The controversy over medical marijuana has a long history, dating to 1981 when two rookie legislators named John Rowland and Moira Lyons were serving in their first year in the House. They voted for a bill that allowed doctors to write prescriptions for medical marijuana, but lawmakers said Wednesday that Connecticut doctors have avoided doing that over the past 23 years because federal law prevents it.

Nine states have medical marijuana laws, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously three years ago that medical marijuana is illegal.

Nationally, advocates have watched Connecticut's action closely as the bill passed three committees and then the full House.

"We are dismayed that the bill is not immediately advancing to the Senate," said Neal Levine, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

"In its floor vote," he said, "the House recognized what ordinary people in Connecticut and across the nation have understood for some time: It makes no sense to subject patients battling cancer, multiple sclerosis or AIDS to arrest and jail for simply trying to relieve some of their suffering."

Source: Hartford Courant (CT)
Author: Christopher Keating, Capitol Bureau Chief
Published: April 29, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Hartford Courant
Contact: letters@courant.com
Website: http://www.ctnow.com/