Legislation shows shifting attitudes

Last modified: 7/25/2013 10:50:12 AM
After almost five years of gubernatorial vetoes blocking medical marijuana legislation, New Hampshire is set to become the 19th state in the country, and the last in New England, to allow seriously ill people to use marijuana for medical purposes.

The state Legislature passed a bill sanctioning medical marijuana on June 26 , and the bill now awaits final approval of Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

The Legislature passed two medical marijuana bills in 2009 and 2012, only to have former Democratic Gov. John Lynch veto them , but Hassan has said she will sign the recent medical marijuana bill into law.

“Medical marijuana will ease the suffering of New Hampshire’s seriously ill patients,” Hassan wrote in support of the bill in an email to the Ledger-Transcript Tuesday. “This is a compassionate policy that can help patients seeking relief from certain conditions when other treatments may not be effective.”

House Bill 573 permits patients suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and other conditions to possess up to two ounces of marijuana upon their doctors’ recommendations. Patients will obtain the marijuana from one of four nonprofit, state-authorized “alternative treatment centers.” The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services must license two alternative treatment centers within the next 18 months.

State Rep. Douglas Ley, (D-Jaffrey), said in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript on Wednesday he voted in favor of the bill because it had strong constituent support. He added that he hopes decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes will lead to decriminalizing the drug for recreational use. “I support decriminalization of possession of marijuana in small amounts. Medical marijuana is just an opening,” Ley said.

State Rep. Susan Emerson, (R-Rindge), said she too voted in favor of the bill, though for different reasons than Ley. Emerson said she backed the bill because she hopes medical marijuana will relieve seriously ill people’s suffering.

“I really feel that this is a good thing for sick people. Why shouldn’t we relieve a person’s pain and agony?” Emerson said.

Emerson added that, unlike Ley, she only supports the decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes. “I have always voted against legalizing marijuana, because I feel that it’s a gateway drug to heroin and cocaine and other things. But I think it’s a good thing for people who are suffering,” Emerson said.

House Bill 573 was the result of a compromise between different versions of medical marijuana bills passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The compromise eliminated a provision that the House originally approved that would have let patients grow their own marijuana, instead of receiving it from alternative treatment centers. Hassan said she would not sign the bill if it included the home-grow option, citing concerns from law enforcement agencies about the difficulty of regulating home marijuana cultivation.

“I heard concerns from the law enforcement community regarding their ability to enforce a home-cultivation provision,” Hassan wrote in her email to the Ledger-Transcript. “By eliminating this provision, I believe this bill provides the appropriate level of regulation needed for the use of medical marijuana.”

The compromise also reduced the number of alternative treatment centers in the state from five to four, and eliminated post-traumatic stress disorder from the list of conditions eligible for medical marijuana treatment.

The Legislature dropped PTSD from the list of conditions because many legislators felt the most effective treatment for PTSD is consulting a physician, not using marijuana, Hassan wrote. “The use of medical marijuana by those who suffer from PTSD can discourage them from seeking appropriate mental health care,” she wrote.

Emerson said she was pleased overall with the compromise, but she thought PTSD should have been included in the list of qualifying conditions. “I have encountered many, many young people coming back from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan with PTSD. It is a serious problem. ...I feel that [medical marijuana] is something our veterans should be entitled to,” Emerson said. She added that she plans to speak with State Rep. Donna Schlachmann (D-Exeter), one of the bill’s main sponsors, about amending the bill to include PTSD at the House’s next session.

Kaitlyn Smith of Greenfield, an occupational therapist, echoed Emerson’s concerns about the fate of PTSD patients in New Hampshire in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript in downtown Peterborough on Tuesday. Smith said she has worked with veterans with PTSD in Colorado and Rhode Island, where small amounts of medical marijuana are legal, and has witnessed the positive effects the drug had.

“I worked very closely with them, so I could see how much better they slept and acted when using it. I’ve seen it work,” Smith said.

Smith also has a personal motivation for supporting medical marijuana access for PTSD patients, since her boyfriend has the condition. He lives in Rhode Island and enjoys legal access to medical marijuana to reduce his symptoms. “My boyfriend gets stuck in a trance and has night terrors. I’ve seen firsthand how terrifying it can be. It’s definitely something I wouldn’t want to experience,” Smith said.

The bill is raising other concerns among local law enforcement officers. Rindge Police Chief Frank Morrill said in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript on Friday he was worried the decriminalization of medical marijuana would make police officers’ jobs harder.

“There’s a significant amount of time and resources that we spend on marijuana cases as it is,” Morrill said, noting that marijuana-related crimes account for a third of all incidents that come before the Rindge Police Department each year. “Putting more people out there with legitimate access to marijuana for medical reasons may potentially complicate our jobs.”

Kenny Finn of Greenfield said he fears the bill will let more marijuana reach the black market. “I hope it’s not abused, and people won’t be using legitimate prescriptions just to get high,” Finn said in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript in downtown Peterborough on Tuesday.

But Morrill said it is unlikely that marijuana meant for patients with medical conditions will be diverted to recreational users, since tight regulations will govern medical marijuana’s distribution. He said he was more concerned that police officers would waste their time and resources attempting to arrest legal medical marijuana users. “If someone is sitting out on their front porch smoking a pipe or a joint out in the open, it might draw attention, and people will report it, and law enforcement will respond, only to find that it’s justified by medical reasons,” Morrill said.

The bill is also sparking a conversation among local health care professionals. No physicians at Monadnock Community Hospital are currently prescribing medical marijuana, since the bill is brand new and no alternative treatment centers have been licensed yet, said Laura Gingras, the hospital’s vice president of philanthropy and community relations, in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript on Monday. But physicians at MCH may soon have the option of prescribing medical marijuana for patients with cancer, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma and other conditions.

“As the regulations are laid out by the state, if other hospitals find a safe and appropriate way to do this, it’s likely that Monadnock may as well,” Gingras said. “Medical marijuana will be heavily regulated by the state, and we will look to them to provide guidance for both physicians and patients regarding appropriate use of this new treatment option.”

But patients will not likely be able to rely on health insurance or medical assistance programs, such as Medicaid, to cover the cost of medical marijuana.

“House Bill 573 does not mandate that health plans pay for the expense of medical marijuana,” said Keith Nyhan, director of consumer services at the N.H. Department of Insurance, in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript on Wednesday.

“You cannot require insurance companies to cover this, so it’s going to be up to people,” Ley said. “It’s not a perfect solution by any means...and that’s true under any state,” he said, noting that all 18 states that have already legalized medical marijuana do not require health insurance companies to cover it.

The bill will not have a financial impact on New Hampshire taxpayers, though. The medical marijuana program will be self-funded by the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, meaning the department will use revenue generated by the program to cover all expenses of the program, said John Williams, director for legislative affairs at the Department of Health.

The Department of Health estimates that establishing alternative treatment centers, hiring additional staff to run the centers, and issuing identification cards to qualifying patients will cost approximately $204,000 in fiscal year 2014, Williams said. This cost will be offset by certification fees paid by qualifying patients, licensing fees paid by private contractors for opening alternative treatment centers and private donations from wealthy individuals, he said.

The whole program is not expected to be up and running for another year to a year and a half.

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