PROVIDENCE — Medical marijuana patients say they did all the right things.
They went to the General Assembly to get medical marijuana made legal, they testified at hearings. First they got a law allowing the use of marijuana for chronically ill patients, then they went through the legislative process all over again, testifying at even more hearings, to get a law creating compassion centers where they could get their medicine legally, safely and regularly without having to grow it themselves or have someone do it for them.
Then after all that, with compassion centers within weeks of getting their final legal clearances, U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha stepped in, telling Gov. Lincoln Chafee in a letter that the state-licensed dispensaries could be subject to raids, prosecutions and forfeitures under federal law and that, while federal resources would not be used to pursue patients and their caregivers, large-scale growing and distribution operations like the compassion centers could be targeted.
Chafee responded by putting the final approval for compassion centers “on hold.”
Ellen Lenox Smith of North Scituate said those two actions make her feel “mad, betrayed and tired. I’m really, really tired. We have already won these rights. I’m tired of false hope.”
Lenox Smith said she and about two dozen other medical marijuana supporters were at the Statehouse Wednesday to “ask the governor and the legislative body to put an end to this new injustice.”
Joanne Leppanen, executive director of the RI Patients Coalition, a medical marijuana advocacy group, said, “the effect on the patient population of another delay, or possibly not having compassion centers altogether is beyond devastating.”
“I don’t know how many public hearings we have had on this issue,” she said during a rally in the Statehouse Rotunda. “In 2008, 2009, we had hearings on the compassion center regulations themselves, hearings on the compassion center applications. The U.S. Attorney’s office was right down the street. Never once was a concern voiced about how this statute was going to be implemented. There was never an objection raised by the federal government. There was always an understanding that if we were not in violation of state law, they were legal.
“Every time we get near the finish line,” Leppanen said, “the finish line moves.
“So we are calling upon the governor to stand up and do what’s right and protect the patients of Rhode Island and follow Rhode Island law,” she said. “Don’t hold patients hostage because of a conflict between state and federal law.”
Leppanen and many of the same patients were upset last fall when the state Department of Health (DOH), after soliciting proposals for compassion centers and spending four months reviewing the applications, rejected all of them and started the application process all over again.
Dr. Seth Bock, an acupuncturist and owner of one of the three DOH-designated compassion centers, the proposed Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, said Rhode Island “has crafted a unique and exceptional law that the Department of Justice should reflect upon as a model that can be used around the country for the safe distribution of medical marijuana. Unlike California, Rhode Island’s compassion center program satisfies virtually all the perameters outlined in the Department of Justice’s guidelines issued in 2009.
“Patients simply do not have the time to wait for a wholesale reclassification of marijuana (by Congress), nor do they have the time for pharmaceutical companies to come up with an appropriate alternative. For now, the Rhode Island medical marijuana and compassion center program stands as this country’s best method of providing a medicine that the scientific community embraces as an alternative to toxic and addictive pain medications as well as other drugs.”
Speaking from a wheelchair, J.B. Mounier of Pawtucket said, “This is not a luxury, this is not something done to feel good. This is essential for someone to function, as would any other medication.”
Chafee spokesman Michael Trainor said the letter the governor received from Neronha last week “leaves no room for imagination. The governor believes that by continuing on the present course, he’d be putting compassion centers and people associated with compassion centers at great risk.”
Trainor said Chafee has been in touch with governors of other states with medical marijuana dispensary laws, including last weekend at a national governor’s conference in North Carolina, and hopes to start a “national conversation” about the issue.
“The governor is very empathetic to those people who rely on medical marijuana,” Trainor said.
But because the General Assembly approved the creation of only three compassion centers, he added, “the volume (of marijuana grown and sold) in each one of those is going to be very high” and that is what touched off the concerns of the U.S. Attorney.
Trainor noted that about 3,400 Rhode Islanders are currently certified to use medical marijuana and to grow it or have a caregiver do so. He said while having distribution through compassion centers would be more convenient, “We are not talking about eliminating access to marijuana for medical purposes in Rhode Island. What we are talking about is the method of distribution.”