I am a 16-year veteran of the Air Force, a conservative Republican, and I have never used marijuana in my life. Because of those three facts, some were surprised when I decided to sponsor Senate Bill 409, a bill that would protect seriously ill patients if their doctors recommend marijuana.
I believe what we're trying to accomplish with this bill is perfectly consistent with conservative principles. My colleagues and I have worked hard to ensure that this bill will create a responsible, limited policy, one that will protect patients and their families but not open the door to fraud and abuse.
Fortunately, there are several examples of states with medical marijuana laws that do not create negative publicity. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia currently allow medical marijuana. A few states have taken a route that allowed unregulated dispensaries, and one — California — allows medical marijuana for any and all conditions.
SB 409 does not copy any state's law, but it resembles the laws of Vermont and Maine much more closely than the laws of California. Our neighboring states' laws are not causing problems or sparking federal intervention. They are simply protecting the seriously ill.
Our bill requires genuine, serious medical need and draws a firm line between medical and non-medical use. The role of the state is simply to issue ID cards to qualifying patients and, in some cases, their caregivers. ID cards protect the cardholders from arrest, and only four mature plants are permitted for each patient.
In addition to ensuring that only patients with truly debilitating conditions may qualify, SB 409 would not allow dispensaries, a change that caused the Department of Health and Human Services to withdraw its long-standing objections to the bill. This year HHS staff members have worked with legislators to improve the bill language, and their input has been greatly appreciated.
After considering over 2.5 hours of testimony, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee surprised observers by voting 5-0 to approve the bill. Eight Republicans joined all five Senate Democrats in support when it passed 13-11 on March 28. Two more Republican senators voted in favor of concurring with the House recently, bringing us to a majority of Republican Senators.
As further recognition that support on this issue transcends partisan boundaries, the House voted 236-96 to approve SB 409, with 97 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans voting in favor.
So why is SB 409 finding favor with so many conservatives, as well as with moderates, liberals and independents? Here are a few reasons:
-- Illness doesn't discriminate based on political ideology or party affiliation. Many patients involved in this effort are conservative Republicans who are battling cancer, multiple sclerosis and other serious illnesses. This is one issue that has proven it can bring Democrats and Republicans together in an effort to improve public policy.
-- Conservatives believe government should avoid interfering in the relationship between a doctor and a patient. The opinions of medical professionals are mixed on this subject, but virtually every doctor agrees marijuana can be a beneficial medicine at least in certain cases when other treatments have failed. Besides, we currently allow doctors to prescribe medicines that are much more toxic and addictive than marijuana, and these prescriptions are not considered to be endorsements of recreational use.
-- When politicians in Washington, D.C., choose to ignore an issue that is broadly supported by the public, conservatives understand that states have to stand up for their own citizens' rights. Our constitutional system of government depends on states being willing to serve as laboratories of good government. The federal government has been obstructing necessary research into medical marijuana for decades, and legislators in Concord are left with no ethical choice but to create legal protections for seriously ill patients who relieve their suffering with medical marijuana.
My colleagues and I have a chance to stand up for some of New Hampshire's sickest patients by passing SB 409 into law. For their sake, I hope we are able to succeed.
Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, is an aeronautical engineer.