As Connecticut considers expanding its medical marijuana program this year, local officials and medical professionals are weighing in on the benefits and risks of making the drug more widely available.
The program’s Board of Physicians appealed to the state Department of Consumer Protection, recommending four of seven proposed conditions be added to the 22 that currently qualify adults for treatment, which include multiple sclerosis, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and other terminal illnesses requiring end-of-life care.
New Britain’s legislative contingent is largely in favor of continuing to develop the program, which was instituted in 2014. State Sen. Terry Gerratana, a Democrat and co-chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, helped formulate last year’s legislation, which opened registration to minors with several debilitating illnesses.
“I’ve looked at how carefully the program is regulated and they do follow a pharmacology model,” Gerratana said. “I believe it’s a very successful program with the model that’s been set up and I am supportive of their decision to expand.”
State Rep. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, also praised the state’s approach to the issue.
“I am in support of expanding slowly and conservatively the number of illnesses that qualify for medical marijuana,” Lopes said. “I think the state has taken a very slow and conservative approach and the result has been very successful, with limited problems and true medical relief for people who need it.”
State Rep. Gary Byron, R-Newington, said he’s heard directly from families of patients how much the drug has eased their pain.
“The only thing I’ve heard is that it’s doing wonderful things for those who are suffering,” Byron said. “I’m very much in favor of it.”
The four additions -- fibromyalgia with neuropathic pain and spasm, rheumatoid arthritis, post herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles, and muscular dystrophy -- won’t affect eligibility unless they are officially approved. Three of the seven proposed additions – eczema, emphysema and osteoarthritis – were not approved by the panel.
DCP Commissioner Jonathan Harris and his staff are now reviewing the proposal, to be sent to the legislature’s Regulations Review Committee. It could be over a year before new patients with one of the four conditions can register.
State Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, is backing another proposal to make medical marijuana available to patients registered in other states who are visiting Connecticut. The bill he introduced is being reviewed by the legislative commissioner’s office.
“We just want to say welcome to visitors,” Tercyak said. “We don’t want you to risk arrest when you are on an airplane or driving through a state that isn’t enlightened enough to have a program. Don’t worry when you come to Connecticut. We’ll allow you to buy your medicine.”
Tercyak said this move would not only increase the state’s tourism industry, but would also put Connecticut ahead of other states considering enacting similar laws. He is in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana as well.
“We could have recreational marijuana being sold and taxed well before Massachusetts does,” he explained. “There’s a benefit for being first in the region. We have a budget crisis. Why are we not taxing marijuana?”
New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell said his main priority is and will continue to be protecting residents.
"Our biggest concern with marijuana use is public safety," Wardwell said. "Driving while intoxicated on any substance would be a concern. Protection of life is always our greatest concern."
If a person has marijuana and a card indicating he or she can possess it, it's not a problem, Wardwell said. "If someone is not in violation of the law and they lawfully possess it, we aren't going to arrest them. Otherwise, if they are in violation of the law, they get an infraction."
The Hospital of Central Connecticut supports the work of Dr. Andrew Salner, on the board of physicians that recently weighed in on the expansion. As director of Hartford Healthcare’s Cancer Institute, Salner has certified hundreds of cancer patients for the treatment in the last two years.
“I was an early advocate for the program before it was approved,” Salner said. “I’ve treated carefully-selected cancer patients suffering from nausea, loss of appetite and pain syndromes who don’t respond to conventional medications or who have excessive side effects. The medical cannabis therapy has been very helpful, with an 80 to 90 percent success rate.”
Salner is one of nearly 600 Connecticut physicians licensed to prescribe the treatment to 15,000-plus registered patients, served by six dispensaries across the state. Three more locations are expected to open later this year. Hartford County has the most patients, with 3,771 registered.
The Healing Corner Inc. in Bristol, is one of just a few dispensaries in the region. Owner Geri Ann Bradley has been a pharmacist for 28 years. Her products are different from the marijuana sold illegally on the streets, she has said.
Although a smokable variety is available, most patients take their dose of marijuana through a vaporizer, take capsules orally or take a tincture in droplet form under their tongues.
“One of the truly unique and wonderful features of Connecticut’s program is that the product given to patients really is a medication,” Salner said. “It’s grown in very careful conditions and each batch is tested by an independent laboratory to measure the level of the cannabinoids and ensure it’s free of chemicals and pesticides.”
After choosing the therapy, qualified patients register for a $100 fee. They discuss their symptoms and doctor’s referral with a dispensary pharmacist, who then recommends a specific dosage.
“It’s a program that I think has really proved beneficial for lots of patients,” Salner said. “As we learn more I think it will continue to grow.”
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other marijuana-related legislation Connecticut is considering:
In addition to the medical program’s expected expansion, several bills proposed at the start of this legislative session are designed to further enhance the state’s green landscape.
H.B. 5194 would waive the registration fees for eligible veterans.
H.B. 11 and H.B. 5314 would legalize and tax the sale of marijuana, allowing adults to purchase and grow the plant recreationally. Proponents say tax revenue to the state and towns could prove significant.
Medical marijuana across New England:
Massachusetts – Enacted 2012; licensing of recreational cannabis shops begins July 1, 2018.
Rhode Island – Enacted 2006; distributed by Compassion Centers; home cultivation also permitted.
New York – Enacted 2014, available in smoke-free forms to adults and minors.
Vermont – Enacted June 2012, home cultivation permitted.
New Hampshire – Enacted April 2016, decriminalization expected this year.
Maine – Enacted 1999, home cultivation for recreational use just approved.