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N.H. may OK medical use of marijuana

New governor Hassan more likely to sign bill than her predecessor was

Clayton Holton says his use of opiate painkillers is greatly reduced when he uses marijuana. He suffers from muscular dystrophy and has been in a wheelchair since he was 10.

Jim Cole/Associated Press

Clayton Holton says his use of opiate painkillers is greatly reduced when he uses marijuana. He suffers from muscular dystrophy and has been in a wheelchair since he was 10.

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 has been in a wheelchair since he was 10. He struggles even to eat.

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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 8 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 is not 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. Vetoes by former governor John Lynch stymied lawmakers’ approval of medicinal marijuana in recent years, but with the blessing of the new governor, Maggie Hassan, 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 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.

Hassan supports tightly controlled, medicinal use of marijuana, spokesman Marc Goldberg said.

Last year, a bill passed that allowed individuals to grow a limited amount of marijuana for medicinal use in a secure location. Again, Lynch vetoed it, and a bipartisan group of senators failed to muster the votes to override Lynch’s veto to send it to the House for a vote.

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 Representative 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.

‘‘If I had to bet money, I’d say something probably passes, but I wouldn’t bet a lot of money. It will be close,’’ said Senate president Peter Bragdon of Milford.

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

‘‘We want to make sure everybody with an ache or a pain doesn’t get’’ access to the drug, he said.

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.

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