Sen. Toni Boucher stood up at 5:22 Friday afternoon to oppose a marijuana bill for what might have been the last time. She didn’t sit back down again until nearly five hours later when discussion began on the first of many amendments.
Boucher led a lengthy filibuster during a debate that lasted close to 10 hours. It was an effort to block the final passage of a bill allowing licensed pharmacists to dispense marijuana to patients with certain debilitating illnesses such as glaucoma, cancer, or HIV.
The Wilton Republican has been fighting annual bills to loosen the laws on marijuana for years. Last year, despite her objections, the legislature passed a bill decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed it into law.
That debate lasted only three hours because Boucher had agreed to limit her discussion in exchange for an amendment which automatically refers people to a treatment program after getting caught with cannabis a third time.
With the substance decriminalized, the remaining perennial marijuana bill was legislation allowing the chronically ill to use it to relieve their symptoms. A similar bill passed both chambers of the legislature in 2007, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed it.
This year, the Judiciary Committee crafted a more restrictive bill that requires a doctor to recommend the drug and a pharmacist to dispense it. Advocates have hailed the measure as the best-tailored law in the country that avoids the pitfalls other states have encountered after passage.
At each of the bill’s public hearings, Boucher testified at length against it.
Early Saturday morning the Senate passed the bill 21-13 and sent it to Malloy, who has pledged to sign it. But not before Boucher questioned proponents of the bill for hours, warned colleagues of the dangers of the substance, and raised several amendments to the measure.
“I have to say that it is disheartening that this year’s session of educational reform should be over shadowed by a bill that, for some of us, would send a negative message to our children,” she said early in the debate.
Before the bill was raised, Boucher spent much of the day in the Senate Republican caucus room reviewing notes and amendments. A total of 48 were filed ahead of the debate. When she was done, the files were put in a cart and taken out onto the Senate floor. Even as the preceding bill was being debated, she was at her desk marking up language with a blue pen, highlighting passages with a yellow marker.
Supporters of the bill anticipated Boucher’s filibuster and even lauded her for her efforts. Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who opposed last year’s bill because he felt it was poorly crafted, said he was supporting this year’s bill but understood the opposition.
“[Boucher] has argued passionately and fervently and believes to the depths of her soul that her position on this issue is the correct one and I applaud her for her diligence,” Kissel said. “I look forward to her amendments and her discussion and her debate.”
But Kissel said that from his perspective it was impossible to forget the faces and names of the individuals who testified before the Judiciary Committee in support of the bill. Many, like former lobbyist Barry Williams, told painful stories. Williams was forced to retire after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Over the past few years, Williams has returned to the Capitol to lobby in support of medical marijuana bills. He said the substance is the only way he can relieve the symptoms and find a sense of normalcy. He was in the Senate gallery as Kissel spoke.
“Since 2006 he hasn’t really lobbied me for anything, but he has asked me for one thing,” Kissel said. “He’s saying if you can support this legislation that makes sense, he would be very grateful. And Barry, I think you still make a lot of sense on this issue.”
But Boucher maintained that the health risks of marijuana far outweigh the relief patients might find. She said the substance would be fine for a terminally ill patient “but not for those who have any chance of getting better.”
“I’ll repeat this over and over this evening, that if this was for terminal patients, we could all get on board, it would take us all of 10 minutes and we would be out of here tonight in an half an hour,” she said.
Though Boucher offered an amendment to narrow the bill to usage by terminal patients, it was voted down.
Boucher cited studies suggesting marijuana leads to cancer, lung tissue damage, depression, and schizophrenia. She said it causes heart problems and affects the reproduction system by causing sperm to swim abnormally.
She linked marijuana with increased crime, gang activity and Mexican drug cartels. She said it will increase driving under the influence and auto accidents.
Sen. Eric Coleman, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said supporters of medical marijuana likely could produce a study to contradict every study Boucher cited.
Still, Boucher referenced convicted Cheshire home-invasion killer Steven Hayes as an example of where drug use leads. She said Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused of shooting former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was not accepted into the military because of his cannabis use.
She pointed to a letter from Connecticut U.S. Attorney David Fein saying the bill creates a “licensing scheme” that authorizes conduct contrary to federal law.
The federal government considers marijuana to be a Schedule I controlled substance, with the most stringent regulations, but the bill requires the Consumer Protection commissioner to reclassify the substance as Schedule II.
Boucher said the change wouldn’t protect the state from the federal government, which still has the power to enforce its laws.
“Let’s all work to keep our children and our neighborhoods safe by not approving this bill in the Senate this morning,” she concluded at around 2:30 a.m.
Despite her efforts as well as opposition and amendments from other senators, the chamber approved the bill soon after.