A bill legalizing medical marijuana in Delaware received overwhelming support in the state Senate on Thursday.
The bill, based on the Marijuana Policy Project's model legislation, cleared the Senate 18-3 and now goes to House.
The bill states that, with a doctor's written recommendation, patients with certain serious or debilitating conditions that could be alleviated by marijuana would be allowed to possess up to six ounces of the drug. Senators approved the bill after adding an amendment lowering the minimum age for qualifying patients from 21 to 18.
Proponents of the bill point to studies suggesting that marijuana can help alleviate pain, nausea and other symptoms. Conditions that would make a patient eligible for marijuana use include cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's really a compassion bill," said chief sponsor Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington.
Sen. Michael Katz, a physician, questioned some of the comments made during the floor debate and noted that there is no consensus within the medical community about the validity of medical marijuana, but he nevertheless supported the bill.
"I do believe we have an opportunity to alleviate pain and suffering in patients with certain medical conditions," said Katz, D-Centreville, who voted against lowering the minimum age for patients to 18.
Under the bill, qualifying patients would be referred to state-licensed and regulated "compassion centers," which would be responsible for growing, cultivating and dispensing the marijuana. The bill allows for one nonprofit compassion center in each county within a year of its passage, but does not limit the number of additional centers that could be registered later.
The state Department of Health and Social Services would issue identification cards to patients and their caregivers to help ensure they are not subject to arrest. Each qualified caregiver could assist no more than five patients. The state would keep a database of registered patients and caregivers.
Patients would be allowed to purchase up to three ounces of marijuana every 14 days, but could possess no more than six ounces at any one time.
Supporters of the bill contend that it includes commonsense restrictions to ensure that patients do not abuse marijuana or endanger others.
"You cannot drive impaired; you cannot go to work impaired," said Henry, who also noted that a patient could not sue a doctor who refused to recommend marijuana as a treatment.
The state Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees the Delaware State Police, has taken a neutral position, but Sen. Colin Bonini of Dover expressed concern about the message it might be sending.
"We're saying marijuana is medicine, it's OK, and how many kids will internalize that message and start on the path to drug abuse?" asked Bonini, one of three Republican to vote against the bill.
Bonini also noted that the stated goal of the Marijuana Policy Project, which had a key role in the drafting of the bill, was to legalize marijuana.
According to the group's Web site, it envisions "a nation where marijuana is legally regulated similarly to alcohol."
Bonini said the state could have explored other avenues, such as revising the criminal code to add a "mitigating circumstance" for marijuana possession that medical patients might be able to use in their defense, rather than creating a framework for the legal distribution and use of marijuana.
"If you don't think this is step one toward legalization ... I say you're sorely mistaken," he told fellow lawmakers.