Rhode Islanders who use medical marijuana to help manage chronic and debilitating medical conditions spoke out today against a proposal in Governor Gina Raimondo’s 2017 budget that would levy heavy taxes on medical marijuana plants grown by patients and caregivers.
At a news conference held by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) and the RI Patient Advocacy Coalition, patients said this “sick tax” on medical marijuana would be devastating to them and many other patients and caregivers, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to access the medicine they need to manage their pain and other medical symptoms. The proposed tax, the groups said, has generated a palpable fear in the patient community and should be struck from the proposed budget.
“If these changes become law, I will be effectively forced out of the medical marijuana program,” said Peter Benson, an East Greenwich resident and medical marijuana patient who is paraplegic and uses medical marijuana to control painful and persistent muscle spasms. Benson broke his neck in a bicycle accident when he was 17. He is confined to a wheelchair. Benson called the governor’s tax “an absolutely cruel proposal.”
“Medical marijuana gave me my life back and my relationship with my wife and daughter,” said Benson. Marijuana controls the painful spasms and allows him to hold his daughter in his lap.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the Governor’s office, the new tax would impose a $150 per plant charge on patients lawfully growing marijuana for medical purposes, and a $350 per plant charge for caregivers volunteering their time and energy to grow plants for sick patients. The proposal also reduces the number of plants that patients can grow.
Ellen Smith, from Scituate, is both a medical marijuana patient and a caregiver for five other patients. She said of the proposed tax: “It would add more than $8,000 a year to the cost of growing medicine for my patients. They can’t afford it and neither can I. It is breaking our hearts.”
Smith remembers meeting candidate Raimondo who promised that she supported the medical marijuana law. Voting for Raimondo is a vote she regrets. Under the Governor’s proposal “gifting” the donation of excess marijuana to those who cannot afford to purchase it, will be taken away. Smith does all she can to care for the patients she provides for, and gifts all excess marijuana to the needy. Now she literally fears for her life and the lives of her patients.
“I will not only lose my patients, I will lose my purpose in life,” said Smith, who says the anxiety over this proposal has contributed to her suffering. One night, during a particularly bad breathing episode, she comforted herself that perhaps her death might be used to convince the Governor to change her mind.
The Governor’s fact sheet claims that each marijuana plant is “estimated to generate an average of $17,280 of annual revenue for a caregiver,” and that therefore the tax “amounts to just 2 percent of the value of marijuana produced.” But JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the RI Patient Advocacy Coalition, noted that patients and caregivers are growing the plants for medical purposes only and make no money from the plants. “These plants produce medicine, not money,” said Leppanen.
Leppanen pointed to the difficulties and costs patients already face in growing marijuana, and said: “This is a draconian proposal based on fictional numbers that undermines the purpose of the medical marijuana program. It will wreak havoc on the lives and health of thousands of Rhode Islanders.”
“If one marijuana plant was worth $17,000 we’d be having this meeting in Hawaii,” said Benson.
A plant big enough to be worth $17,000 would be the size of the State House Holiday Tree, said Leppanen.
Bobby Brady-Cataldo was the second patient in Rhode Island to be legally able to used medical marijuana. All the marijuana she gets to treat her symptoms of MS is gifted. 80 percent of my money goes to my mortgage, she said, and she would not be able to afford medical marijuana otherwise.
The Governor’s proposal means, “people can’t give me medicine that literally saved my life. Is this ignorance or cruelty?” asked Brady-Cataldo. “They’ll give me Vicodin or Oxy, they’ll give me a drug habit, but they won’t help me.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, added: “Having a medical marijuana program means little if the state makes it impossible for all but the wealthy to actually participate in it. The patients and caregivers affected by this proposal grow medical marijuana to ease their symptoms and to help others; they are not running a lucrative drug trade. The state should treat them just as they would any other patient using legal medication. Imagine charging sick patients prescribed codeine a special tax based on the street value of the medication if they illegally sold it. We fervently hope the Governor will take this troubling tax proposal off the table.”
The ACLU has long supported the availability of medical marijuana for patients who could benefit from its use.