DE: Delaware Senate approves medical marijuana

DE: Delaware Senate approves medical marijuana
delawareonline / 5/11/2011 / By Chad Livengood

DOVER — Delawareans with cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases could be legally using marijuana a year from now to alleviate the effects of their ailments.

The Senate on Wednesday sent Gov. Jack Markell legislation that would decriminalize marijuana possession, use and distribution for limited medical purposes.

The Senate’s final vote came after an extensive lobbying effort that began in January with a visit to Legislative Hall by celebrity talk show host Montel Williams, who uses marijuana to ease the debilitating effects of MS.

With Markell expected to sign the bill soon, Delaware would have one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country, regulating everything from the quality of the cannabis to how it is transported. Fifteen states, including New Jersey, already have medical marijuana laws on the books.

"There is no other bill like the bill we just passed here in Delaware," said Senate Majority Whip Margaret Rose Henry, a Wilmington Democrat who was the bill’s sponsor.

Unlike residents in other states, ill Delawareans who get a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana would not be allowed to grow their own at home. They would be supplied only through state-licensed dispensaries.

"All of the changes that were written in weren’t bad things, they were responsible and safety things," said Joe Scarborough, a 47-year-old Wilmington man with HIV who advocated the bill.

Laws in New Jersey and the District of Columbia also prohibit home cultivation, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that helped write the Delaware legislation.

Three dispensaries

Under the bill, the Department of Health and Social Services would issue one dispensary license in each county to a not-for-profit organization. Licenses could be added in the future if demand warrants.

Usage of dispensaries, or so-called "compassion centers," varies by state. Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington do not allow them, limiting marijuana growing to patients’ homes, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

The District of Columbia plans five to eight dispensaries, New Jersey has authorized six, Rhode Island has three and Colorado has nearly 1,000 dispensaries.

California doesn’t license dispensaries, which has led to thousands of them opening up across the state. Arizona has 125 because of a legal limit of one dispensary for every 10 pharmacies in the state.

Health officials do not know how many of Delaware’s 900,000 residents might register through the program.

About 64,000 of the 9.9 million residents of Michigan have gotten physician approval for marijuana use in the first two years of the program, the Detroit Free Press recently reported.

Critics of Michigan’s law point to the fact that just 55 doctors have certified 71 percent of all medical marijuana users as evidence of the need for stricter regulation.

Henry contends her bill will prevent the type of mass prescribing of marijuana seen in Michigan.

The bill requires a "bona fide physician-patient relationship" for a doctor to recommend marijuana for a qualifying patient. And a patient must have exhausted other medical remedies before a physician can recommend smoking, ingesting or inhaling marijuana, said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington West, who co-sponsored the bill.

Debilitating medical conditions that would qualify for marijuana usage include cancer, HIV/AIDS, MS, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. People with other debilitating conditions could qualify if other medicines or surgical procedures have failed to relieve pain, seizures, muscle spasms or intractable nausea.

New Jersey, which legalized medical marijuana last year, and at least 12 other states allow glaucoma patients to obtain cannabis to treat their condition. Delaware’s law would not.

In a deal made with Delaware physicians, the Senate removed glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and early stages of hepatitis C from the list of conditions that would qualify. Physicians were not convinced there is valid evidence that marijuana has therapeutic effects in treating those diseases, said Mark Meister Sr., executive director of the Delaware Medical Society.

The state would issue medical marijuana identification cards to patients 18 years and older or to assigned caregivers, who would have to be at least 21 years old and have no record of felony offenses. Age restrictions are rare in other states’ laws. "In most other states, there either is not an age limit or special rules for those under 18," said Noah Mamber, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.

The bill contains a host of provisions aimed at preventing medical marijuana from becoming mixed in with illegally purchased pot.

Qualified patients and caregivers could face prosecution for failure to transport marijuana in tamperproof containers issued by the dispensary. While in possession of marijuana, patients will be required to carry their cards "and may be subject to prosecution for failure to do so," according to the bill.

For the most part, marijuana usage by qualified patients would be limited to personal residences. The bill prohibits possessing marijuana on a school bus, on school grounds and at any correctional facility. Smoking medical marijuana would be prohibited on any form of public transportation and in any public place.

Six ounces a month

Under the bill, qualified patients could buy up to six ounces of marijuana each month — more than double the monthly possession limit in most states.

California has an eight-ounce limit and Oregon and Washington, where home growing is permitted, each allow residents to possess up to 24 ounces of marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover South, voted against the bill, contending the Legislature has just put the state on the path toward full legalization of marijuana.

"We’re going to have a lot of marijuana in Delaware," said Bonini, who called the bill the "most lenient marijuana law east of the Mississippi."

The bill also would establish a state-supervised safety compliance facility to test marijuana grown at dispensaries. DHSS estimated that implementing the legislation and regulating the dispensaries would cost $480,100 in the 2013 fiscal year and $358,680 in the 2014 fiscal year. Those costs will be recovered through licensing and application fees for the dispensaries, Henry said.

"Once the project is up and running, it will actually pay for itself," Henry said.

Henry and Keeley stopped attempts to add a $2-per-ounce fee on the sale of marijuana. Other states levy taxes on the drug as a way to generate revenue.

"We are not looking at this as a moneymaking venture," Henry said. "But we do expect it to break even."

DHSS said it needs $72,700 in state funding for the 2012 fiscal year to start implementing the program over the next year.

During brief discussion before the final passage of the bill on Wednesday, Bonini contested the estimated costs of the program.

"It’s bad enough we’re doing something that’s very bad public policy," Bonini said. "But we’re making taxpayers pay for it."