by Chris Boardman, ABC-6 Rhode Island

The House today voted 63 to 5 to approve legislation to allow the creation of compassion centers to dispense marijuana to patients in the state’s medical marijuana program.

If the legislation (2009-H 5359A), which is sponsored by Rep. Thomas C. Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence), is enacted, Rhode Island would join California and New Mexico as the only states that allow medical marijuana dispensaries.

The passage comes on the heels of the Senate passage on April 29 of similar legislation (2009-S 0185aa) sponsored by Sen. Rhoda E. Perry (D-Dist. 3, Providence). Both she and Representative Slater were also the sponsors of the legislation that created Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law in 2006. Thirteen states in total allow the medicinal use of marijuana.

Representative Slater said compassion centers would safely and sensibly address a major problem in the state’s medical marijuana law: Patients have no safe, legal way to obtain marijuana, and must turn to the streets for it. Patients who testified at committee hearings told of being robbed and terrified while attempting to find marijuana on the streets.

“We recognized when we created the medical marijuana program that marijuana has a legitimate medical application, and that patients should have access to it if they need it. But we forced them to deal with criminals in order to get it. We’re talking about very sick people, and they shouldn’t have to put themselves at risk to get their medicine,” said Representative Slater.

The bill amends the original medical marijuana act to create nonprofit compassion centers that would be registered by the Department of Health to distribute marijuana or related items to people registered with the state’s medical marijuana program. The bill sets a limit of three compassion centers statewide.

Representative Slater and Senator Perry sponsored similar legislation, which passed the Senate but died in committee in the House amid concerns that the federal government might raid the centers because federal law prohibits the distribution of marijuana. Instead, both chambers passed a bill, which was later vetoed by the governor, to study the issue.

However, with the change in the federal administration, the sponsors believe the climate has changed for the bill. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has stated that the federal government will no longer prosecute dispensaries for patients in states that allow them.

“Without the threat of federal raids, there’s no practical reason not to develop a safe way for patients to access this drug. When we recognize that patients need marijuana to ease their pain and the federal government isn’t standing in the way, it’s cruel to refuse to allow them a safe means to get it,” said Representative Slater, who added that he hopes there would  be enough support for the legislation to override a veto if necessary. The Senate passed Senator Perry’s version of the bill with a 35-to-2 vote.

The General Assembly overrode a gubernatorial veto to create the state’s medical marijuana program in January 2006. The bill was the result of years of effort by Representative Slater and Senator Perry, and it was a very personal campaign for both. Representative Slater has been diagnosed with two types of cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. He is one of four of the six siblings in his family with the disease and lost his father, brother and uncle to cancer.

Senator Perry’s nephew, Edward O. Hawkins, died four years ago after a long battle with AIDS. As Hawkins suffered and wasted away in his final months, his family offered to get him marijuana to ease his pain and nausea, but he refused for fear of arrest.

In honor of their personal crusades to make marijuana treatment available to the suffering, the General Assembly named the law the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act.

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