Medical marijuana ballot question sparks debate
By Anika Clark (October 20, 2012 12:00 AM)
Jerry Smith of Fall River said he was a healthy man before an automobile crash in 2008 caused him to lose half his ear, partially blinded him and paralyzed him from the waist down. From anti-anxiety pills to Oxycontin, "they had me on so much medication for so long (that) I was completely missing my life," he said.
Then he discovered the drug he said helped him whittle down the list of medications and their side effects: marijuana.
"I can get out. I can do things. I enjoy my kids," said Smith, 42. "This just makes me feel like a human again."
Approving state ballot Question 3 to legalize the medical use of marijuana would give patients with debilitating conditions the same treatment option already legal in 17 other states, according to the Committee for Compassionate Medicine.
The Massachusetts Medical Society opposes the question.
Among the concerns President Dr. Richard Aghababian cited is that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, along with peyote, heroin and LSD — substances with "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," according to the DEA.
This classification would put physicians in a difficult position, Aghababian said. "Most of us don't possess a Schedule 1 license to prescribe," he said. If the public is interested in medical marijuana, it should press for reclassification and "conduct appropriate clinical trials to prove the efficacy of all or part of the contents of the marijuana leaf," he said.
Dr. Nancy Langhans, a pediatrician with the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, echoed the Massachusetts Medical Society in her opposition.
"Medicines go through the FDA. They don't go to the voter," she said.
Marijuana should have the same level of testing as other medications, she argued, while saying there are potential health risks in the smoke alone. "Without studies, what's going to guide physicians how to prescribe it?" she asked. "What's the appropriate use and dosing?"
The Committee for Compassionate Medicine cites, on its website, what it says are thousands of studies on marijuana's medical value. And the National Institutes of Health website lists clinical trials that are recruiting, ongoing or completed on everything from marijuana's use for inflammatory bowel disease to neuropathic pain. Other trials are geared toward studying marijuana abuse and dependence, and a study on persistent marijuana use that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested a damaging affect on the teenage brain.
"We let people have alcohol and other things that can be dangerous. That's a different matter than a medical application," Aghababian said. "We don't prescribe alcohol."
But Matt Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said the new law wouldn't require doctors to prescribe at all.
"It is true that if doctors prescribe an illegal drug, they're liable to have issues with the DEA and law enforcement agencies," he said. "That's why it's called a recommendation when it comes to medical marijuana."
According the Secretary of State's office, the law would require doctors to certify that the patient has a debilitating medical problem and would probably benefit from using marijuana medically.
Patients could obtain a supply of up to 60 days' worth, which would be a quantity determined by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers would have to register with DPH and the department would also have oversight over issuing medical marijuana registration cards to patients. For those with a financial hardship or other barrier to accessing a treatment center, the DPH would issue registration to grow a limited amount of marijuana themselves.
"If people want to enable those who wish to use marijuana to use it, then that's what the ballot initiative should say," Aghababian said. "I don't know why we're making this a medical issue."
Allen called the suggestion by some opponents that this measure is just an attempt to legalize marijuana "insulting."
Marijuana doesn't have to be smoked to be used medically, according to Allen, who said one of its many benefits is that it can help people stay on grueling but lifesaving regimens like and antiretroviral therapy for HIV patients and chemotherapy for people battling cancer.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association favors the initiative.
"The most important thing we can do is make sure that all options are available for our patients," said President Donna Kelly-Williams, a registered nurse at Cambridge Hospital. Asked about opponents' concerns about the potential for abusing the new law, she noted that doctors already provide "incredible doses" of painkillers in the best interest of their patients. Yet the provisions of the marijuana law are in place "to strictly monitor this," she said.
Massachusetts' ballot question caps the statewide number of treatment center at 35 in 2013 although says DPH could modify this in the future.
Sen. Mark C.W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, said he supports Question 3, as does state Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, who said he's seen the toll chemotherapy has taken on loved ones. "I believe that medicinal, prescribed marijuana would have helped them through their suffering," he said.
Rep. Christopher Markey, D-Dartmouth, said he is opposed to the ballot question and thinks it is the first step on a slippery slope toward full legalization. Other medicines can be used, he said, adding that he doesn't want teens and young adults to infer from medicinal marijuana that the drug is beneficial.
Rep. Robert Koczera, D-New Bedford, said he is leaning toward opposition and is concerned about the potential for exploitation of the new rule.
Carl Alves, executive director of Positve Action Against Chemical Addition in New Bedford said he will also vote "no," and agreed that the initiative is less about medicine and more about increasing access. "People say it doesn't harm you, but I deal with a ton of people that are stuck because they're chronic users of marijuana," Alves said.