Monday February 11, 2013

CONCORD, N.H. -- At 27, Clayton Holton of Rochester is 5 feet 11 but weighs only 66 pounds.

Holton suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy that causes wasting syndrome and complete muscle loss. He’s been in a wheelchair since he was 10. He struggles even to eat.

Six years ago, he ended up in a hospital and then a nursing home where he was given Oxycontin. Then friends helped him visit California, where medical use of marijuana is legal. He started using it for pain relief, and he gained eight pounds.

Now, when he needs relief, he reaches for marijuana.

"When I have it, I am able to keep my appetite up and take a lot less opiate painkillers than without it," he said.

That isn’t always possible given the drug’s illegal status, but Holton and others in New Hampshire who say marijuana eases chronic pain and other debilitating health issues have new hope. Gov. John Lynch’s vetoes stymied lawmakers’ approval of medicinal marijuana in recent years, but with the new governor’s blessing, the state could become the 19th to legalize the use of the drug.

The issue has widespread support in the Legislature. Both earlier bills restricted distribution only to people with debilitating or terminal medical conditions, and there is consensus that whatever model is adopted must have strict controls on access to the drug.

Four years ago when she was a state senator, Democratic Gov.


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Maggie Hassan voted to override one of the vetoes, which legalized the use of marijuana with a doctor’s prescription. She still supports tightly controlled, medicinal use of marijuana, spokesman Marc Goldberg said.

One new bill would allow up to five alternative treatment centers to dispense marijuana to patients as well as allow patients to grow small amounts for personal use, or to designate a caregiver to grow it for them. Both options are needed because access to a dispensary might be difficult and more expensive for some, said the bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Donna Schlachman, an Exeter Democrat.

Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro said his position has changed over time to supporting legalizing medicinal uses if it is tightly controlled. He favors the dispensary model with tight controls on who gets the drug to avoid abuse.

A bill will reach Hassan, House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff of Concord believes.

But even with Hassan’s support, passage of a medicinal marijuana law still faces obstacles.

Law enforcement agencies have concerns about the difficulty of controlling cultivation and distribution of legalized marijuana. Lynch sided with their opposition with his vetoes.

The drug has not been subjected to the rigorous scientific examination as medicines approved by the Food and Drug Administration, said Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate, speaking for the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

Even if New Hampshire legalized its use, federal laws ban its use and distribution, he said.

Despite patients’ worries, Crate says police are not arresting sick marijuana users who are discreet.

"We’re not arresting patients in their homes," he said.

The method of how to distribute the drug is also up for debate.

Crate worries that could send a message to young people who are not sick but may feel the drug has government’s approval. And he fears legalizing medicinal use will lead to decriminalizing the drug.

The sponsors’ "intentions are to help people. But there is a larger group ... and their goal is to legalize marijuana for recreational use and this is one way to start the process," he said.