Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jan 2006
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2006 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Edward Mason, Staff writer
Cited: Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)


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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