By SHANNON YOUNG
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – The Connecticut Senate granted final approval early Saturday to a bill that would allow the use of medical marijuana and includes strict regulations for the cultivation and distribution in an attempt to avoid problems other states have run into when legalizing the plant for medical use.
The measure passed the state’s Senate 21-to-13 after nearly 10 hours of debate. It now goes to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who said in a statement that he plans to sign the bill into law, as he believes it would “avoid the problems encountered in some other states.”
The legislation has already been passed by the House of Representatives.
Since California passed the country’s first medical marijuana law in 1996, states with similar measures have struggled with disorganization and clashes with the federal government, which considers the drug illegal and of no medicinal value.
Advocates say the Connecticut proposal goes further than any other state in regulating the drug.
“I’m feeling rather proud of the fact that many people who have reviewed this bill are very complimentary about it and said that it was the best that they’ve seen on the subject of medical marijuana,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield.
Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana.
“Everything from California back is trying to get away from chaos,” said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
Under the legislation, marijuana would be sold in multiple forms at dispensaries, which must have a licensed pharmacist on staff. It would be marketed only to patients authorized to use it. The measure also outlines specific diseases that would be treated by the drug, establishes a registration system for patients and caregivers and restricts cultivating the plant to growers with permits.
“I think experience has shown, that having statewide structures in place makes it easier for everyone to understand what the rules really are,” said Alan Shackelford, who serves on a state advisory work group for medical marijuana in Colorado and helped advise Connecticut lawmakers on their proposal.
But Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he believes the system proposed in Connecticut’s legislation is over-regulated. He said that while he agrees with some regulations in the bill, such as secure indoor growing facilities, he believes the restrictions could lead some people to obtain the drug through illegal means.
“Under this bill, there are restrictions every step of the way,” he said. “Therefore, to my mind as a practical matter, it is a fallacy to think that people would pursue marijuana this way, as opposed to other ways in the state of Connecticut.”
Opponents in Connecticut have distributed a letter to state senators from U.S. Attorney David Fein, who wrote that the Department of Justice would not go after the seriously ill patients who use the illegal drug, but would enforce federal laws against those who manufacture and distribute it.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, raised concerns on how the bill would legally operate under the federal law. He said Connecticut should not create a law that would violate federal statutes.
“We’re creating new law, flying in the face of federal law,” McLachlan said.
Like McLachlan, Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said while some argue in favor of legalizing medical marijuana by pointing to number of states that have recently passed legislation on the issue, federal law trumps state law.
In addition to federal efforts to shut down dispensaries in California and, to a lesser extent, Colorado, problems with regulation have arisen in states where the drug was legalized through ballot initiatives and the system was implemented without regulations in place, advocates say. Likewise, some states don’t allow medical marijuana dispensaries and patients are left to grow their own.
Because of this, several states have been taking steps to strengthen regulations.
Colorado imposed tight regulation and state government control over dispensaries in 2010. New Jersey and Delaware also have passed laws to strictly regulate medical marijuana.
California state Sen. Mark Leno said he was working to enact legislation that would further clarify that care providers be exempt from prosecution for providing the drug to patients.
“I’m hopeful that our attempts to further refine and define how to provide safe and affordable access with a physician’s recommendation, here in California, operates so the federal government will shift its priorities to more pressing needs of the American people,” Leno said.
But Leno said he is uncertain how states’ attempts to improve regulation will succeed in reducing federal scrutiny. He points to small patient-owned and patient-run dispensaries in his district that have been shut down by the federal government.
Allison Price, a DOJ spokeswoman, said in a statement the department “is focusing its limited resources on significant drug traffickers, not seriously ill individuals who are in compliance with applicable state medical marijuana statues.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)