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Medical marijuana: Panacea or problem?

Voters Tuesday will decide whether Massachusetts should join 16 other states and the District of Columbia in offering residents suffering from certain conditions the opportunity to use medical marijuana as part of their treatment.

Question 3 on the Nov. 6 ballot, if approved, would allow patients to obtain medical marijuana, for their own use, establish centers where this marijuana would be distributed and give exemptions that would allow people to keep up to a 60-day supply of marijuana and even grow their own.

The state’s Department of Public Health would be required to write regulations and oversee the distribution centers, while the Legislature, which has been trying to get similar legislation passed, could also get involved to refine the measure if it is passed.

Supporters of the ballot initiative see it as a way to improve lives.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a supporter of medical marijuana, said he sees the ballot measure as a start, and believes the Legislature would further refine the system by developing a plan to implement the measure.

“I’m hoping for humanitarian reasons people will vote for it and I’m hoping they support legislation that will tighten it,” Rosenberg said.

“This is about safe access to medical marijuana,” said Matt Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patients Advocacy Alliance. “This is truly about compassion for suffering patients and truly about their quality of life.”

Allen said the referendum will leave it up to patients and their doctors whether marijuana is an appropriate option for a range of debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, HIV/ AIDs and multiple sclerosis.

“For a lot of these patients, it more effectively addresses symptoms,” Allen said.

Opponents see it as the next step toward making marijuana legal in the state, after it has already been decriminalized.

“This is a flawed law with tremendous loopholes that would be detrimental to populations and youth,” said Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance.

While Heilman said she sympathizes with people suffering from certain illnesses who might benefit from medical marijuana, she said the provision that would allow “other medical conditions” to be treated is ripe for abuse. Besides, Heilman and other opponents believe the prescriptions are not being used exclusively for medical needs.

“We’re not talking about medicine, we’re talking about recreational use,” Heilman said.

Heilman said the law would fuel the black market, especially with provisions that allow people to keep a 60-day supply. This could then be sold for illicit profit. There are also ways of circumventing normal prescription monitoring, she said.

“People can have enormous amounts of pot that will be difficult to track,” Heilman said.

Supporters of the measure say these concerns are unfounded and that Massachusetts is able to learn from other states.

“If we do this, we’ll be state No. 17. I hope we could learn from what’s happened in other states,” Rosenberg said.

“That would be the safest medical marijuana in the country,” Allen said.

Safeguards include limiting the state to 35 marijuana treatment centers, so there won’t be the issue of 1,000 or more dispensaries as is the case in Los Angeles.

Patients also will need to be licensed by the state, a detailed state database will be kept and only patients who have a bona fide relationship with a physician will be able to get the written certification that they could benefit from using marijuana.

“We have included regulations to ensure no additional access for recreational users,” Allen said. “There’s going to be no increase in crime.”

Rosenberg said one aspect of the measure he would like to see changed is to limit conditions rather than giving doctors discretion to prescribe for unspecified illnesses.

“It produces unnecessary worry and concern to the public that we’re creating an open-ended situation like exists in California and Colorado,” Rosenberg said.

He would also remove the hardship waiver that allows someone to keep a 60-day supply of marijuana in their home and grow it, as well.

“In my opinion, this is totally unnecessary,” Rosenberg said. “This is medicine, and like any other medicine, you go where the medicine is provided.”

Northampton attorney Richard Evans said the ballot initiative is about providing a safe and legal source for medical marijuana.

Evans added that voters are taking leadership on the issue in Massachusetts because their elected officials have not.

“Question 3 represents an occasion where people, the voters, take up the leadership when their elected leaders failed to do so,” Evans said, noting that the Legislature could have taken the issue up itself.

The specific regulations are expected to be written by the Department of Public Health within 120 days, if the article passes.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he is against the proposal the way it is written.

“I don’t think it sends the right message at this time,” Livingstone said. “There’s not a lot of oversight and it doesn’t address minors and how it will impact them.”

Legacy Comments1

Minors have had easy access to marijuana for decades; marijuana prohibition allows youth access, not the initiative's protection for doctor-approved patients. Question 3 restricts patient access more than the California or Colorado medical marijuana laws and deserves voter support. Research in medical marijuana has been blocked by federal agencies despite FDA approval of research proposals, but given its lack lack of toxicity marijuana's safety is well established. As with marijuana decriminalization in 2008, the Gazette's editorial stands against common sense and the overwhelming majority of its readers.

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