As they debated a bill to legalize the medical use of marijuana, some members of the legislature’s Public Health Committee voiced concerns the bill defies federal law.
The legislation would allow patients with certain debilitating illnesses to use marijuana dispensed by a licensed pharmacist. The committee passed the bill Tuesday 19-6.
Though the federal government considers marijuana to be a Schedule I controlled substance, with the most stringent regulations, the bill requires the Consumer Protection commissioner to reclassify the substance as Schedule II.
The conflict between state and federal law divided members of the committee. Some were supportive of the concept but couldn’t justify voting to establish a law that clearly contradicts another.
Rep. John Hetherington, a New Canaan Republican who voted for the bill when it was before the Judiciary Committee, said he would not be supporting it in the Public Health Committee because it attempts to nullify federal criminal liability.
“We ought to think carefully before we do that. Defying federal law by state law is really not something that has occurred very often, certainly not outside the Deep South,” Hetherington said. “Federal law is the source of civil rights legislation, it’s the source of voting rights, many, many of the protections that we take for granted.”
Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, a Glastonbury Republican and practicing physician, had similar concerns. However, from a medical perspective he said the bill was a positive step.
“I’m torn on this bill. From a medical point of view, we do know the need is there,” Srinivasan said.
For the small group of people who would be impacted by the law, conventional medications and other means of delivering the chemicals in marijuana are not sufficient, he said. However, with the bill moving to the House floor, Srinivasan was apprehensive about the legal conflict.
“How is this going to impact when the two laws are in conflict with each other? That is my concern, regardless of the fact that medically it is necessary,” he said.
However, Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, said the legal questions weren’t what the Public Health Committee should spend its time weighing.
“With respect to state law versus federal law, I don’t really care so much. We do what we’re going to do in the state of Connecticut. I’m sitting in front of the Public Health Committee and I want to do what’s best for our citizens,” he said.
Though Carter said he was one of the only Republicans to support a similar measure last year, he said he was less inclined to support it this year because there weren’t enough scientific studies showing whether the substance is good or bad for patients.
For instance, there’s not a lot of information regarding how cannabis may interact with other prescription medications and the Food and Drug Administration has not weighed in on the issue.
The committee’s Co-Chairwoman Sen. Terry Gerratana, said the bill will create an environment where more of that information can become available.
“Because it has been relegated in the past to be, if you will, a nefarious part of a culture . . . it hasn’t been studied the way I believe it should have been,” she said, adding that it’s known to relieve pain.
“[The bill] sets us down a road that looks at marijuana in a new light — in a different light, that can help the citizens of our state,” Gerratana said.
Gerratana voted against the bill last year, but she voted in favor of it Tuesday.
Rep. Phillip Miller, D-Ivoryton, said it wasn’t surprising that Connecticut was not in agreement with the federal government and the FDA, which he said seems intent on helping the pharmaceutical industry.
“I don’t think it would be unusual that we might be more progressive or even show more concern than the FDA,” he said.
Although it’s a different issue, Miller noted that some states willfully ignored a prohibition of alcohol when it was mandated by the federal government.
Co-Chairwoman Rep. Betsy Ritter said when they drafted the bill, the Judiciary Committee took care to look at the experiences of other states, which will help shield Connecticut from the legal problems other states have faced.
“I’ve been impressed with efforts taken and the analysis of other states and other areas, and a dedication to not repeat situations that have led to unintended consequences in places and to try to provide as much control as possible,” she said.