A protester demonstrates in front of the State House in Concord in this 2010 file photo. After years of wrangling, New Hampshire may soon legalize medical marijuana. (Union Leader)
'Home grow' dropped on way to medical marijuana compromise
The bill, pending final approval of the committee of conference agreement by the full House and Senate next week, will be on its way to Gov. Maggie Hassan's desk, where, she said, she will sign it into law.
At the insistence of the governor and the law enforcement community, a "home-grow" option was removed by the Senate from the bill originally passed by the House.
The House conferees Tuesday agreed to the Senate position on the "home-grow" issue, after Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, and John Reagan, R-Deerfield, told them bluntly that the bill simply would not become law if it allowed patients to grow their own small amounts of marijuana.
Instead, the bill allows marijuana to be dispensed only at no more than four not-for-profit "alternative treatment centers" throughout the state. And it does not allow patients, who would be certified by the state, to grow their own marijuana even during an anticipated 18-month to two-year rule-making and licensing process for the centers.
Patients during the past few months have told the lawmakers and the governor that some of them will not survive for the two years it will take to get the dispensing centers operational.
Still, said Hassan, "I have always maintained that allowing doctors to provide relief to patients through the use of appropriately regulated and dispensed medical marijuana is the compassionate and right policy for the State of New Hampshire.
"The compromise legislation as agreed to by the committee of conference addresses the concerns that I have heard and expressed throughout this session, and provides the level of regulation needed for the use of medical marijuana," she said.
Rep. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, a physician who treats patients with hepatitis C and Crohn's disease, said after the deal was reached, "This is a step in the right direction in broadening the regimens available to patients without broadening the risks of abuse.
"This is one of the tightest laws in the country," he said.
New Hampshire would be the 19th state to allow the use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes, according to ProCon.org, a nonpartisan research nonprofit organization.
The bill requires the state Department of Health and Human Services to develop rules governing the application and licensing process for the treatment centers. It requires the department to license two centers within 18 months of the effective date of the legislation, which is "upon passage.
That delay is why proponents believed the home-grow option was so important. Prime sponsor, Rep. Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, predicted there will be future attempts to add the home-grow option to the law.
Matt Simon, a New Hampshire-based legislative analyst for the national Marijuana Policy Project, said, "It is unfortunate that the measure will not provide immediate protection to those currently seeking relief from medical marijuana, but in time it will ensure seriously ill people will be able to do so without fear of arrest. The law will also provide patients with safe and reliable access to medical marijuana so that they no longer need to resort to the underground market."
The bill allows medical marijuana to be used by state-certified patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, muscular dystrophy, Crohn's disease, agitation of Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic pancreatitis, spinal cord injury or disease, traumatic brain injury or "one or more injuries that significantly interferes with daily activities as documented by the patients' provider."
To be certified, the patient must also be suffering from "a severely debilitating or terminal" condition or undergoing treatment that has produced any number of severe physical problems, including chemotherapy-induced anorexia, severe pain that has not responded to other treatments, severe vomiting or seizures.
The House version of the bill allowed those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder to also receive marijuana treatment, but the Senate, also at the insistence of the governor and law enforcement, removed it and the House Tuesday agreed to the change..
Schlachman also asked the conferees to include a provision allowing patients who suffer from any of the qualifying diseases and grow marijuana before the alternative treatment centers are up and running to present an "affirmative defense" if they are charged with illegal possession of marijuana.
The conferees also rejected that suggestion. However, the bill does allow an "alternative defense" to be presented by a patient charged with a marijuana-related defense after alternative treatment centers are up and running and the patients have been given their identification cards.
"We already know we have patients who are using under the guidance or with the approval of their medical providers," Schlachman said.
"We've got people who are fragile medically who are going to continue to have to worry. I was really hoping we could provide at least that level of assurance and comfort," she said.
Under the bill, a person who received marijuana for treatment would still be subject to prosecution if he is under found under the influence of marijuana while operating any motorized vehicle or while at work, operating heavy machinery, or while smoking marijuana in a public place, including a bus or taxi, or any public park, beach or field.
A patient certified to use marijuana would be prohibited from possessing or smoking it in or on the grounds of any elementary or secondary school or pre-school, or in a designated drug-free zone, unless his home is within the boundaries of a drug-free zone.
Possession would also be prohibited in a place of employment, without the written permission of the employer, a correctional facility, public recreation or youth center or in any law enforcement facility.
A patient or treatment center caregiver found in possession of marijuana outside of his home and is not carrying his registry identification card would be subject to a fine of up to $100.
The Department of Health and Human Services would create and distribute the identification cards as part of its overall administration of the program.
The bill also sets up a "Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Advisory Council to monitor all aspects of the program and issue a formal opinion in five years on whether the program should continue or be repealed.
Also, the bill requires the health and human services agency to file annual reports on the program with the state Health and Human Services Oversight Committee and the Board of Nursing.
"This is our first attempt at helping our citizens," said Stiles. "Any bill that comes through the Legislature is not perfect, but this gives us an opportunity to review it and make changes."
"We wanted to get something passed," said Rep. James MacKay, D-Concord, a professional therapist who chaired the conference committee.
"And this was the first time we had a governor open enough to do it," he said.