Lawmakers wrangling over whether to legalize marijuana for medical use continued Tuesday to struggle with questions pertaining to federal enforcement, offering no indication that a legislative compromise might be in the works and likely leaving the issue up to voters to settle in November.
An advancing ballot question on the topic will only be averted if backers fail to collect 11,485 certified signatures by July 3 or if they drop their effort in deference to a plan on Beacon Hill to pass an alternative proposal – an option that appears unlikely at the moment. Two bills before the Public Health Committee on legalizing medical marijuana (S 1161) and (H 625) have been sent to study – a legislative move that almost always ends the chances of a bill passing.
Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, co-chair of the committee, told the News Service after a hearing on the ballot initiative (H 3885) that his committee is “not working on anything” that would stop the planned ballot question. The Legislature has until May 1 to either pass the initiative, draft its own version of legislation, or refrain from acting on it and allow the process to continue toward the November ballot.
“We will just have to wait and see what happens,” Sanchez said after a sparsely-attended hearing in Gardner Auditorium Tuesday morning.
In 2008, Massachusetts voters settled another marijuana-related ballot question, approving a question that decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and instituted a system of civil penalties and fines. The measure passed easily, with 1.9 million voters approving it and 1 million voting against it.
After listening to arguments for and against legalizing medical marijuana for almost three hours, Sanchez said the issues “in and around this are very complicated.”
“The patient’s perspective is really compelling because they are suffering from debilitating diseases,” he told the News Service. “At the same time the structures or the lack of structures in the bill for a controlled/non-controlled substance that isn’t structured by the FDA is a major concern.”
But the biggest concern, Sanchez said, is the potential for prosecution by federal authorities of those who dispense the drug for medical purposes. The Jamaica Plain Democrat has voiced his fears over federal prosecution during previous hearings on the topic.
“The attorneys general have said they will prosecute dispensaries and commercial providers, the commercial operations. So that means everyone. That means everyone involved in the process,” Sanchez said. “That means if we were to pass this the commissioner of public health could essentially be dragged out of his office, and held in contempt if we were to pass, and if he were to operate.”He pointed to news last fall where the four U.S. attorneys in charge of California threatened to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries for violating the federal law against marijuana. California was the first state to pass a law legalizing medical marijuana in 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
“I just don’t know. How do you get around our federal authority, especially when you have your attorney generals saying they will prosecute, and not only prosecute, they will actively investigate, and they will actively prosecute?” Sanchez said.
Some opponents of legalizing medical marijuana said the potential for federal prosecution is very real, even if Massachusetts passes a law.
Heidi Heilman, from the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, told lawmakers during the hearing that she recently met with U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz on the issue.
“She was very clear. They will uphold current federal marijuana laws,” Heilman told the committee.
A spokeswoman for Ortiz could not be immediately reached for comment.
Sanchez and John Corrigan, one of the ballot initiative’s authors and a former prosecutor, went back and forth for several minutes over whether the U.S. Justice Department would prosecute people who are using and dispensing marijuana for legitimate medical purposes. Corrigan said he does not believe U.S. attorneys have been “that direct” about prosecuting.
Sixteen other states, and the District of Columbia, have all passed similar legislation legalizing medical marijuana use. Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island are the three New England states with laws allowing medical marijuana.
Andrew Beckwith, a former criminal prosecutor and attorney with the Massachusetts Family Institute, said one of the problems with the way the ballot question is written is that it doesn’t limit itself only to debilitating conditions, but ends in a “catch-all clause.”
The ballot question details several conditions that would qualify for medical marijuana, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, Hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and “other conditions as determined in writing by a qualified patient’s physician.”
Beckwith argued it would leave too much leeway for doctors to prescribe medical marijuana.
Corrigan said when writing the question, his organization – the Committee for Compassionate Medicine – tried to draft a bill that would “allow only the intended medical use.” The ballot question lays out criminal penalties for fraudulent or nonmedical use, including jail sentences. It also requires CORI checks for anyone handling drugs at a treatment center, and it would limit the number of treatment centers allowed to dispense marijuana to 35 statewide. The ballot initiative also prohibits public smoking of marijuana, and says it can only be prescribed by a licensed physician in writing for a specific medical condition, he said.“There is a belief that people will exploit the system for personal use,” Corrigan said. “This gives Massachusetts the tools it needs, but also protects against abuse.”
Those who need medical marijuana appealed to lawmakers for compassion.
Eric McCoy, a Boston resident with multiple sclerosis, said he has used medical marijuana daily for more than 17 years to help with stiffness and muscle spasms. His doctors are aware of his marijuana use, he said. McCoy said he never smoked marijuana before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 20 years ago. He told committee members he has to “go underground” to find people who sell marijuana.
“I am almost 60 years old, and quite frankly, it would be nice in my later years not to have to go on the street to find medical marijuana,” McCoy said.
Other proponents of legalizing the drug for medical purposes said it is terrible that patients seeking to ease to their suffering have to seek out criminals to purchase marijuana.
“Currently, only criminals sell this medicine,” said Dr. Karen Munkacy, an anesthesiologist who works for the Rothschild Foundation based in California.
She said patients who use medical marijuana most often do not smoke it, but vaporize it to inhale it. Munkacy said she is a breast cancer survivor who was treated without medical marijuana, but wishes it was available. Medical marijuana decreases patients’ pain, decreases nausea, and increases appetite – which is especially helpful for cancer patients, Munkacy said.
She argued marijuana is categorized as a schedule one narcotic for political reasons, and it is time for the politics to “catch up with the science in our country.” She pointed to the 16 other U.S. states where medical marijuana is legal, and several European countries where it is allowed.
Other physicians disagreed with prescribing it.
Dr. Louis Fazen, a pediatrician from Southborough, said he would have a tough time prescribing medical marijuana because there is no FDA research surrounding the appropriate dosages and the effects. He said he also has concerns about people smoking it.
“Smoking marijuana is dangerous to your health. We know that,” he said. “It is very difficult for physicians to prescribe something they don’t have any information on.”
Lynn Morin, who twice survived cancer that was diagnosed as terminal, told committee members about the pain and suffering associated with cancer treatment. Many cancer survivors experience chronic pain, she said. Morin, who represents the New England Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, said the decision to prescribe medical marijuana should be made between a patient and their doctor.“I have lost a lot of friends in my short life. Many of them suffer. I just lost two very good friends who suffered for a long time,” said Morin, through tears and apologizing for being emotional. “And I just can’t understand why we wouldn’t provide access to people of something that really helps them.”
The Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents nearly 24,000 physicians and student members, on Tuesday affirmed its opposition to smoking marijuana for recreational purposes and said it recognized the importance of clinical trials on the medical use of marijuana.
According to the society, it backed legislation supporting clinical trials at the Department of Public Health. “While that legislation has been long enacted, no clinical trials have been done in Massachusetts,” the society said in policy position statements released prior to Tuesday’s hearing.
In December 2011, two medical society committees that had reviewed the scientific and clinical status of medical marijuana since the 1999 Institute of Medicine Report on the issue concluded “there is no evidence-based clinical measurement on which to establish new policy for a change in prescribing practices” and “that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of marijuana to treat medical conditions.”
The society’s House of Delegates late last year voted to support the report of the two committees.
– Article originally from Dedham Daily News Transcript.