HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana, despite concerns raised by some lawmakers that those who manufacture and distribute the drug under the new state program could risk federal prosecution.
The bill passed 96-51 following about seven hours of debate. It now moves to the Senate for further action. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he supports the concept.
Legislators who opposed the bill distributed copies of a letter sent this week to two state senators from U.S. Attorney David Fein of Connecticut. He wrote that if the state decides to legalize medical marijuana, the Department of Justice won't go after the seriously ill patients who use the illegal drug but it will enforce federal drug laws against those who manufacture and distribute it.
"House Bill 5389 will create a licensing scheme that appears to permit large-scale marijuana cultivation and distribution, which would authorize conduct contrary to federal law and undermine the federal government's efforts to regulate the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances," Fein wrote.
He said federal authorities could consider "civil and criminal legal remedies" against those individuals who set up marijuana growing facilities and dispensaries because they'd be doing so in violation of federal law, despite the state legislation. Fein said the Department of Justice could consider injunctive actions to prevent the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, civil fines, criminal prosecution, seizure of controlled substances, and the forfeiture of any personal and real property used to produce and distribute the drug.
Some lawmakers expressed concern during Wednesday's House debate about the state passing legislation that is at odds with federal law. The bill proposes a system for licensing medical marijuana producers, dispensing the drug and registering qualified patients with debilitating conditions.
"The violation of a federal law to me is a big stop sign and I just can't bring myself to go through it," said Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, who voted against the legislation.
Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, who also voted no, said she's concerned that the state is asking small pharmacies, people who will grow the marijuana and the patients to put themselves in the difficult position of possibly losing their property and their licenses or getting arrested.
"What will Connecticut do to protect those people?" she asked.
Stamford Rep. Gerald Fox III, a Democrat and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it's clear that the U.S. attorney is not relinquishing any his powers to prosecute. However, he pointed out how Fein said the Department of Justice is not making it a priority to pursue patients who use the drug.
Fox also said the patient, caregiver, dispensaries and all entities are exempt from prosecution under state law, according to the bill.
Under the legislation, doctors could prescribe marijuana to patients who suffer from certain specified illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Qualifying patients and their primary caregivers would be able to possess a combined one-month supply of marijuana, but the bill does not spell out what form the drug would be.
Patients and their caretakers would need to register with the Department of Consumer Protection, which would cost up to $25 for each registration. The registration would be confidential.
Additionally, the bill would limit medical marijuana prescriptions to a one-year supply and require all drug manufacturing and distribution to be done in Connecticut. The marijuana would be banned in public places, moving vehicles, school grounds and in the presence of a minor, among other situations.
Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, a lead proponent, said this bill is better than those offered over the past decade because it sets up a system for growing and dispensing marijuana. Patients would not have to grow the marijuana plants themselves. The number of producers would be limited to 10 and they'd be charged a $25,000 non-refundable application fee. The dispensaries would have to be overseen by a licensed pharmacist, she said.
The bill "will enable the state of Connecticut to move forward with a medical marijuana law that can address the concerns of those who are suffering from these debilitating illnesses, but also address some of the concerns and put some restrictions that have been raised in the past by a number of people," Fox said.
Connecticut residents suffering from debilitating diseases have come to Hartford for years to lobby state legislators in support of legalizing the medical use of marijuana. They have argued that the drug is one of the only things that helps to relieve their pain and is less dangerous than some heavy narcotics they have been prescribed.
A bill legalizing the medical use of marijuana in Connecticut failed during last year's legislative session.
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