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April 12. 2013 12:52AM

At hearing, supporters press case for medical marijuana

CONCORD - Supporters far outnumbered opponents of legislation that would legalize "therapeutic cannabis," the term for medical marijuana, at a state Senate committee hearing Thursday.

The Attorney General's Office dropped the opposition it had previously voiced to the bill.

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock told the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee the office is ready to work with lawmakers and the medical community to craft a final bill with tight controls.

The New Hampshire Medical Society did not oppose the bill outright, but suggested a five-year study, prompting state Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, a chief supporter of the bill, to accuse the society following the hearing of "doing anything to try to delay it."

Reagan, whose wife, a former prominent Concord lobbyist, died of cancer nearly a year ago, said New Hampshire would be the 17th state to legalize medical marijuana.

The New Hampshire Association of Police Chiefs opposed the bill.

"There has been abuse where it has been passed, and we fear it will happen here," said Enfield Chief Richard Crate, a vice president of the group.

The bill (House Bill 573) passed the House by an overwhelming margin of 286-64 on March 20. Its fate in the Senate is uncertain and Gov. Maggie Hassan said through a spokesman she would support allowing access to medical marijuana for patients "if appropriately regulated, with controlled and limited dispensing."

The spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said Hassan "will closely evaluate any measure permitting the use of medically prescribed marijuana to ensure that the method of distribution is safe and tightly regulated, and will consult with relevant stakeholders, including the law enforcement and medical communities."

While the more than three-hour hearing was underway Thursday, a group of patients and advocates met with Hassan to lobby her to accept a "home-grow" provision in the bill that would allow patients to cultivate "three mature cannabis plants and 12 seedlings, with a total canopy of no more than 50 square feet."

Hassan spokesman Goldberg said last month following the House vote that she was concerned about the ability of the state to "properly regulate a home-grow option."

The bill allows a patient to either "home-grow" or purchase marijuana from an "alternative treatment center," defined as a not-for-profit entity that would be registered with the state and "acquires, possesses, cultivates, manufactures, delivers, transfers, transports, sells, supplies, and dispenses cannabis, and related supplies and educational materials, to qualifying patients."

The bill allows medical marijuana for a long list of "qualifying medical conditions," including, but not limited to, cancer, glaucoma, HID, AIDS, hepatitis C, muscular dystrophy, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder."

It may also be used under the bill by those suffering from "a severely debilitating or terminal medical condition or its treatment" that produces severe pain or other conditions that have not responded to prescribed medication or surgical procedures for more than three months.

"We are really looking for a mechanism that is affordable and accessible to a very well-defined set of patients," said Rep. Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, "so we aren't contributing in any way" to the proliferation of illicit drugs in the state.

Although the bill, if passed into law, would be at odds with federal law, Schlachman said the federal government "is not interested in prosecuting patients and well-controlled treatment centers."

Reagan said Maine has had a "grow your own" medical marijuana law since 1999 "and they've never had a problem."

Rep. Stephen Schmidt, R-Wolfeboro, noted the bill requires a patient to have a 90-day relationship with a medical provider before being certified to receive marijuana.

He said the bill is tightly controlled, and, "No one will be walking into a head shop on a corner and walking out with a prescription for this stuff."

He noted the bill requires photo IDs for patients and criminal background checks for those who grow or dispense marijuana.

Chief Crate said the chiefs association believes patients should also be subject to criminal background checks.

The bill also sets up an advisory council with a broad spectrum of stakeholders to assist the Department of Health and Human Services to adopt rules, make recommendations to the Legislature and HHS for any additions or revisions to the department rules or to the law, should it take effect, and, five years after passage and taking effect, issue a formal opinion on whether the program should be continued or repealed.

Former New Hampshire Medical Society President Dr. Seddon Savage, said the society believes the Senate should change the bill to require more information on treatment center applications, quarterly patient health updates and to set up a team to review applications for dispensing and using marijuana.

"It's experimental treatment," she said, "and we need to know what we're doing."

Wheelchair-bound Clayton Houlton, who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a genetic disorder characterized by degeneration of muscle tissue, said the home-grow option is the only way he would afford to receive the marijuana he needs to make his life as comfortable as possible.

Alternative treatment centers will be too expensive, he said.

"After I pay all my bills, all I have is maybe $100 or $200 and I can't spend all that money on medicine that I would legally have a right to.

jdistaso@unionleader.com


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