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Medical Marijuana

Medical pot on Tuesday ballot

A key debate that has emerged about Question 3 — which, if approved, would permit the use of medical marijuana in Massachusetts — focuses less on if marijuana can help patients, and more on whether this legislation is the right one to do the job.

Massachusetts is one of six states with a medical marijuana question on its ballot this election. Seventeen states and Washington D.C. have already legalized medical marijuana — even while the federal government has made clear that its ban on the drug supersedes any state regulations.

Supporters argue that the components of the drug have strong medicinal qualities that have effectively helped patients who suffer from debilitating illnesses. They say the drug would provide compassionate care for patients who need it — by reducing pain, decreasing nausea, relaxing muscles and improving appetite.

But opponents contest that the language of Question 3 is too open-ended and would effectively allow rampant drug abuse and crime. They fear that if the bill passes, Massachusetts will follow in the wake of other states like Colorado — which has about 100,000 registered medical marijuana users, 270 registered dispensaries and an equal number of ones pending.

If approved by voters, the proposed law would allow the creation of up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries, with no more than five per county, across the state in 2013.

Monitored by the state’s department of public health, the not-for-profit dispensaries could distribute a “sixty-day supply” of marijuana to qualifying patients. The department would determine the definition of such an amount, as well as the renewal process.

In order for a person to qualify, licensed physicians must sign a document saying that their patient has a “debilitating medical condition” and that, in their judgment, the potential benefits of the marijuana use would outweigh any health risks.

The conditions, as defined by the text of Question 3, are “cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician.”

Limited regulations

The inclusion of the word “other conditions” has raised red flags for opponents of the question, who fear that the dispensaries will become a front for a drug black market.

They take issue with the fact that the law does not make clear regulations about where the dispensaries will be located or define a limit to the number of dispensaries that can be established in 2014 and beyond.

And opponents are alarmed by a clause that, according to the proposed law, would allow people “whose access to a medical treatment center is limited” to grow marijuana at their private residence. Some believe it to be the first step toward an overall push to legalize the drug.

“Ballot Question 3 has expansive loopholes and risks for exploitation and abuse,” said Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance. “By voting no to this question, we’re not closing the door on our chronically ill (but) this is not the right legislation for what we’d like to accomplish with compassionate care.”

But supporters say the question provides patients with a viable treatment option, while also including provisions that will prevent usage from spiraling out of control.

And just because the proposed law doesn’t include explicit restrictions and regulations does not make it flawed, said Matt Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance. The department of public health will implement and oversee the law, and will have control to set whatever regulations it wants, he said.

This has nothing to do with legalizing marijuana,” said Allen. “It’s about patients. ... That’s where it begins, that’s where it ends.”

Medicinal use

Marijuana has never been federally approved as an effective form of medicine, said Richard Aghababian, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Until that happens, he is hesitant to recommend writing prescriptions for the drug. And doctors who do so may run the risk of being federally prosecuted by the Drug Enforcement Agency, he said.

The protections included in the state law would be superseded by federal policy. While government officials have said they are unlikely to target medical marijuana users, providers or prescription writers, any use or authorization of the drug would technically still be violating federal law.

But some in the medical field have disagreed, calling marijuana a much safer alternative to painkillers.

And Lorraine Kerz, a 56-year-old Greenfield woman, said that marijuana dramatically improved her dying son’s quality of his life during his final months.

When her 29-year-old son Silas Bennett underwent chemotherapy for an advanced lung cancer, he experienced “non-stop very violent vomiting,” said Kerz. Pain medication lessened pain but did not take it away, she said.

But by ingesting marijuana — through the use of a vaporizer or by eating it in edible form — Bennett was able to overcome nausea and regain some of the weight he lost. In the months and weeks before his death, his anxiety lessened and he began to resume some of his interests, like taking photographs, she said.

“I feel that this is something that really needs to happen,” said Kerz. “There are so many people that need this. It far outweighs the worries that people are going to use medical marijuana improperly.”

Future changes needed

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, is in favor of Question 3 but acknowledged that it has flaws. If the question was approved by voters, he said that he would attempt to rally legislators to amend the law to strengthen its safeguards.

“The department of public health should establish, based on science and experience, the list of eligible situations which would allow for the use of medical marijuana,” said Rosenberg. “This bill leaves it far too open-ended.”

And he believes that the “hardship waiver” section — which would allow for the cultivation of marijuana if it is too difficult for a patient to access a dispensary — should be removed completely.

“I’m astounded that, in a bill of this sort, such a provision would be inserted,” he said.

Still, Rosenberg believes people should vote yes on Question 3.

“If you say no to this, then the likelihood in the Massachusetts legislature that we’d get medical marijuana (legalized) is pretty close to nil,” he said. “They’ll say the people voted and said no ... they won’t care what the details are.”

But Heilman disagreed, saying that a yes vote gives approval to everything that comes with the law, including all potential risks.

“(It’s) not voting on a concept,” she said. “What people are going to be voting on is six pages of law that is seriously flawed.”

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