Montpelier, Vt. -- The House gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would allow people with certain life-threatening illnesses to use marijuana to relieve pain and nausea without fear of arrest and prosecution.
"This bill does not legalize marijuana," said Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre Town and chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee. "What it does do is say that for a limited number of people with debilitating and intractable diseases who have registered with the Department of Public Safety, that we will not arrest and prosecute them, even though what they are doing is technically illegal."

The House bill is more restrictive than a version passed by the Senate last year. It narrows the list of people eligible to use marijuana, and it allows possession of three plants instead of seven. It also requires registration of users, not with the Department of Health, as called for in the Senate bill, but with the Department of Public Safety, which includes the state police.

The 79-48 vote came after more about four hours of debate.

The Senate now must decide whether to accept the House version or fight for its own.

Gov. James Douglas has said he is opposed to the legislation, but he has called the House changes a move in the right direction from the Senate-passed bill.

"The governor is pleased that the House amendment is much more narrow and allows for more controls than the Senate proposal," said Douglas' spokesman, Jason Gibbs. "He remains very concerned, however, that any measure would still violate federal law and send an inappropriate message about the availability"

In the House debate Thursday, some lawmakers appealed to the medical science and to data about what effects passage of medical marijuana laws has had in the eight other laws that have done so.

Rep. David Brown, R-Walden, who recently lost a close friend to cancer, said his friend had urged him "not to vote on emotion but to listen to the debate and make up my mind." He said that when he heard another House member say, in Brown's words, "this is perhaps the only chance we have to help our friends ... suffering from that pain, that's the data I needed.

"I hope this bill passes as written, and I hope so for our sick friends," Brown said, struggling to keep his composure. "My friend will be buried at 10 on Saturday. Please support this bill."

Critics of the legislation said it would send the wrong message to Vermont's young people.

"What message are we sending to our young people regarding illegal drugs and respect for law?" asked Rep. Virginia Duffy, R-Rutland. "Never has it been more important to just say no."

Source: Associated Press
Author: David Gram, Associated Press Writer
Published: May 13, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Associated Press