Monday, January 09, 2006

Lawmakers consider medical marijuana

Eagle-Tribune Online

By Edward Mason Staff writer

BOSTON — Massachusetts could become the fourth New England state to legalize medical marijuana under a plan before state lawmakers.

On the heels of Rhode Island's approval last week of medical marijuana use, lawmakers here are pushing a measure, with the support of some North of Boston legislators, that would allow doctors to treat patients with marijuana. Backers say people who suffer from debilitating pain and chronic diseases should be able to gain relief without fear of arrest, something 11 states have approved.

But the initiative faces high hurdles. It is opposed by the Romney administration. Local lawmakers, aware of the plague of opiate addiction in the Merrimack Valley, want to ensure access to medical marijuana is airtight. Also, marijuana use — even under a doctor's care — is illegal under federal law, and the Supreme Court holds that permissive state laws are trumped by the federal prohibition.

Under the Massachusetts proposal, authored by Brookline Democrat Rep. Frank I. Smizik, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health would certify patients using or growing marijuana, also called cannabis, for medicinal purposes. The state would issue identification cards to patients and also would designate a single caretaker who could handle or grow marijuana for a disabled patient.

Patients would be limited in how much marijuana they could use and grow. Doctors would be restricted in the types of afflictions they could prescribe cannabis for, including HIV/AIDS, severe pain and nausea, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease.

Rep. Barbara A. L'Italien, D-Andover, is a co-sponsor of the bill and one of several North of Boston lawmakers who have expressed support for the proposal. She opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, but thinks it can help those with serious illnesses.

"I feel very strongly that there are people who have chronic illnesses or pain for whom this seems to bring some measure of relief and they don't respond to alternatives for pain relief," L'Italien said. "Why wouldn't we want those folks to have relief and some quality of life?"

L'Italien's argument resonates with many area legislators, especially those who have family members or friends who have suffered with long-term ailments.

For Rep. Harriett L. Stanley, D-West Newbury, her mother's losing battle with lung cancer cemented her support for legalized, government-regulated, medical marijuana. Stanley said toward the end of her life her mother might have found relief from marijuana.

Another local official who came to support medical marijuana through a personal experience is Rep. Joyce Spiliotis, D-Peabody. Her father was treated for lung cancer in the early 1980s. At the time, a doctor couldn't write a prescription for marijuana to ease the nausea associated with radiation and chemotherapy. Spiliotis said she'd like to see patients be able to get marijuana legally, if a doctor recommends it.

The debate over legalizing marijuana for medical use kicked up when Rhode Island last week became the third New England state — along with Maine and Vermont — to pass a medical marijuana law. The Rhode Island law, passed over the governor's veto, lets people grow up to 12 marijuana plants or buy 2.5 ounces. Medical marijuana users must register with the state and get a photo identification card.

With Rhode Island, 11 states now allow marijuana to be grown and used for medicinal purposes. The other states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Even with the state laws, marijuana use and sale can be prosecuted under federal law. The Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts says fear of prosecution makes it difficult to know how many use marijuana to cope with long-term pain and disease.

Some, though, feel strong enough about legalizing medical marijuana that they do go public. Scott Mortimer, 37, of Newburyport uses marijuana to relieve crippling lower back pain that has tortured him since he was a teenager, following an operation to correct a spinal defect.

Muscle relaxants left Mortimer lethargic. Prescription pain relievers, including opiates, caused severe stomach bleeding. Grasping for an alternative, Mortimer began using marijuana in 1995. Although the cannabis relieves his agony, he has taken on a new burden: fear of arrest.

"You don't want to add legal problems to dealing with a serious illness," Mortimer said.

Even those who conceptually support the bill have worries about whether it conflicts with efforts to curb a drug-abuse epidemic.

Rep. Barry R. Finegold, D-Andover, said he sympathizes with people who suffer from chronic ailments and only find relief from marijuana. But he quickly points out that the North of Boston region has been plagued by heroin and Oxycontin abuse, and he worries that any drug problem would be worsened if there weren't strict controls on access.

"How do you prevent it from getting into the wrong hands?" Finegold asked.

Rep. Arthur J. Broadhurst, D-Methuen, gave conditional support to legalizing medical marijuana. A lawyer, Broadhurst said he would back the measure so long as the final law requires patients to acquire their cannabis legally

Finally, even if the Legislature approves the marijuana bill, there is the federal government to contend with. Not only does marijuana use and cultivation remain illegal under federal law, but the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that state medical marijuana laws are trumped by the federal ban.

Washington is behind the curve on medical marijuana, according to Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover.

"Public opinion is changing," Tucker said. "Most people prefer to put our resources fighting the epidemic of heroin and methamphetamine and not prosecute a sick person."

Mortimer agrees.

"I shouldn't have to break the law to get relief," Mortimer said.


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