Delaware House OKs medical marijuana
Amendment bars smoking cannabis in vehicles, buses
By Chad Livengood, The News Journal, delawareonline.com
DOVER -- The Delaware House on Thursday approved use of marijuana for medical purposes, but tacked on additional restrictions requiring the drug be distributed in tamper-proof containers and prohibiting smoking cannabis in buses and vehicles.
The House voted 24-17 on Senate Bill 17, which now must go back to the Senate for the upper chamber to consider the House's changes.
Senate Majority Whip Margaret Rose Henry, the bill sponsor, said a final vote could happen as early as Tuesday. "They're fine," Henry said of the amendments. "It's not a problem."
The legislation allows Delawareans with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and other debilitating diseases to get a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana to treat their pain, nausea or illness. Qualified patients would be issued a state identification card.
Three state-regulated not-for-profit dispensaries would be established in each county to sell and distribute medical marijuana to qualified patients and caregivers. Only licensed dispensaries would be allowed to grow marijuana; home cultivation would remain prohibited under the bill.
Patients would have to get a doctor's recommendation to smoke, ingest or use a marijuana vaporizer after other medical treatment or prescription drugs failed to treat their illness, said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington West.
"Whether you are diagnosed with cancer, whether you are diagnosed with MS, you must have tried other drugs," Keeley said. "Those drugs must fail first."
In negotiations with the Delaware Medical Society, Henry agreed to remove glaucoma, Crohn's disease and early stages of hepatitis C from the list of qualifying illnesses from the bill to help ensure its passage, Keeley said.
Under the bill, qualifying patients also would be allowed to designate a person to serve as their caregiver and pick up their medical marijuana for them.
Since the bill was introduced in January, lawmakers have heard countless testimony from individuals with debilitating diseases about how marijuana, used illegally, has eased their debilitating pain and helped treat nausea caused by cancer and HIV drugs.
T.J. Jurgens, a 55-year-old Smyrna woman who has battled breast cancer for 18 years, said smoking marijuana has helped her with sleeping problems, pain management and nausea from cancer drugs.
"I will do whatever I have to save my life," Jurgens told the House. "I want to obey the law. If this bill does not pass today, I will be a cancer criminal."
Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, got two amendments tacked onto the bill. The first amendment would require dispensaries to package marijuana in tamperproof containers so that caregivers could not remove any of the cannabis before it arrived in the hands of the patient.
Atkins' amendment got the support of House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, who said he was "uncomfortable" leaving the decision of whether to require tamperproof containers up to regulators at the Department of Health and Social Services.
"I think one more layer of protection -- a simple sealed and tamperproof container that is readily transported -- isn't too much to ask if we're going to do this bill right," Atkins said.
If changes to the bill are approved by the Senate and Gov. Jack Markell, DHSS would have a year to develop regulations for the licensing of medical-marijuana dispensaries, Keeley said.
Henry said she expects medical-marijuana dispensaries -- also known as "compassion centers" -- could be operating by mid-2012 in Delaware.
Atkins' second amendment would prohibit patients from smoking medical marijuana in any form of transportation, including DART buses. Atkins said he wants to prevent so-called "hot boxing" where a legal patient smokes medical marijuana in a vehicle so the other passengers can experience a "contact high."
"This is a common-sense public safety measure," Atkins said.
Rep. Deborah Hudson's amendment seeking a $2 fee for every ounce of marijuana to pay for state regulations of the program failed on a 35-1 vote, with Hudson casting the lone vote for her proposal.
"I don't think that this project is a core value of state service, therefore I think a fee is in order," said Hudson, R-Fairthorne.
Rep. Donald Blakey, R-Camden, proposed amending the bill to allow children to obtain marijuana for medical purposes. The Senate previously lowered the minimum age from 21 to 18.
Blakey, who ultimately voted for the bill, said it would be "unfair and discriminatory" to exclude children with qualifying illnesses from using marijuana to treat their pains.
"It should be left up to a qualifying physician to determine who should get the medication and who should not," Blakey said.
Blakey's amendment was defeated.
After amendments were added and defeated, 23 Democrats and four Republicans teamed up to pass the bill. Eleven Republicans and three Democrats, including Atkins, Rep. William Carson and Majority Whip Valerie Longhurst, voted against the legislation.
Rep. Brad Bennett, D-Dover, voted for the bill, citing his experience caring for his cancer-stricken father.
"When you see somebody suffering that much, if there's something that can help them get through the pain, get through the next day, that's the reason I am supporting this bill," Bennett said.