Massachusetts Legislators to Weigh Medical Marijuana at Statehouse Hearing

The Joint Committee on Public Health will hold a public hearing on a bill that mirrors the ballot question on medical marijuana.

A copy of the ballot question can be accessed through this link.

If the proposed law for the medical use of marijuana appears on the Nov. 6 ballot and is approved by a majority of voters, on Jan. 1 Massachusetts would join 16 other states with a law permitting the use of the plant for medical purposes.

The proposed law would allow a physician to prescribe a 60-day supply of marijuana to a patient with a "debilitating medical condition," such as cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease or a broad category that includes "other conditions." The law would permit up to 35 nonprofit dispensaries or treatment centers around the state, including at least one in each county.

Heidi Heilman , chair of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, which opposes the proposed ballot question, said she is concerned that the law would increase youth access to marijuana and create a false impression that marijuana is safe.

"People do not understand how seriously harmful the drug is to our young people," said Heilman, a mother of three from Weston.

Heilman cites statistics that other states with medical marijuana are seeing increased use of the drug by 12 to 25 year olds.

She said the ballot question seeks to circumvent the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which mandates that prescription and over-the-counter drugs face comprehensive safety and other tests before possible approval.

Advocates say that marijuana is effective in alleviating a variety of symptoms for patients suffering from certain diseases and conditions.

Supporters said that states should move on their own if the federal government continues to block the approval of medical marijuana.

Lorraine E. Kerz of Greenfield said marijuana helped her son, Silas R. Bennett, who died at 29 from cancer, deal with anxiety, pain and nausea, a side effect of chemotherapy. Marijuana also improved his outlook while he suffered with cancer, she said.

"I really stand behind trying to get medical marijuana legalized," said Kerz, one of the original signers of the petition for the proposed ballot question. "There are people whose quality of life depends on it."

Other original signers from Western Massachusetts include Michael D. Cutler, a lawyer in Northampton, and Marcella M. Duda of Ware, a retired home health assistant and mother of four who said she uses marijuana to help soothe headaches and depression caused by two surgeries for aneurysms in 1998.

"I'm not getting high," said Duda, who said she buys marijuana in the underground economy. "I'm getting by the physical pain."

Rep. Jeffrey D. Sanchez, D-Boston, House chairman of the public health committee, declined comment, but issued a statement saying the debate on medical marijuana has been going on for years.

The committee recently voted to put into studies two other medical pot bills, those being S1161 by Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and H625 by Rep. Frank I. Smizik, D-Brookline, according to an aide for Sanchez. A committee vote for further study almost always means a bill is dead for the legislative year, but technically a bill sent to study is still alive.

Tuesday's hearing on the bill is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Gardner Auditorium.

The hearing, limited to only the medical marijuana bill, is mandated as a step in the process for the proposed medical marijuana law to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Once proponents turned in 80,710 signatures of voters in December, the state Legislature was required to consider the proposed question as a bill. Under the state constitution, legislators have until May 2 to pass the bill.

If the bill doesn't pass or legislators fail to act, supporters would need to collect an additional 11,485 voter signatures to qualify for placement of the question on the November ballot.

Three other questions that could be on the November ballot must go through the same process. Those questions include proposed laws to allow terminally ill patients to self-administer drugs to take their lives, overhaul the way teachers are evaluated and require vehicle manufacturers to sell to independent shops all the computer software they need to correctly diagnose any repairs needed for customers' vehicles.

Physicians are also taking different sides on medical marijuana.

Dr. John R. Knight, a pediatrician and the director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children's Hospital in Boston, said he is opposed to legalizing medical marijuana mainly because of the effects it would have on youth.

"From a public health standpoint, this will be devastating," Dr. Knight said. "It is a very insidious drug. It does a lot of harm."

Dr. Knight said that on a national level, more teenagers are in residential treatment for marijuana than for all other drugs combined. He said the effects of marijuana can include depression, major anxiety disorders and mental health problems.

Dr. Knight said approval of medical marijuana can make the drug legal for all intents and purposes. In some other states with medical marijuana such as Michigan, almost anyone can get a prescription, he said.

People who are scheduled to testify in support of medical marijuana include Dr. Karen Munkacy, an anesthesiologist and cancer survivor who believes that medical marijuana can be helpful for treating symptoms of certain diseases, according to Whitney A. Taylor, spokeswoman for the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, which is sponsoring the ballot question.

Taylor said the bill requires that an employee of a treatment center must pass a criminal background check. She said that qualifying patients would need a doctor's written recommendation that specifies their medical condition.

"With over 80,000 voters supporting our initiative petition, there is tremendous public support for legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana for patients suffering from debilitating disease," Taylor said by e-mail.

Taylor, a field director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, also was a leader of a successful ballot effort in 2008 when 65 percent of voters approved a statewide question that replaced criminal penalties for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana with a civil fine of $100, or about the same as receiving a traffic ticket. The decriminalization law took effect in January of 2009 in Massachusetts.

A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association in Grafton, said that marijuana is illegal under federal law, regardless of state law. Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association in Grafton, Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association in Grafton.

Last week, the Internal Revenue Service and federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided a popular dispensary and trade school for medical pot in Oakland, Calif. Since October, U.S. attorneys have sent at least 300 letters to landlords of dispensaries in California and Colorado, ordering them to evict their tenants or face seizure of their property and prosecution, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"We are deeply concerned that any dramatic increase of this narcotic will be abused by certain individuals and will operate as a gateway drug to further addiction later in life," Sampson said.

- Article originally from Mass Live.

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