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Big Day For Medical Marijuana in Mass?

It's hard to make stoner jokes about this week's hearing for House Bill 625 (and corresponding Senate Bill 1161), which would “regulate the medical use of marijuana by patients approved by physicians and certified by the department of public health.” Sure some token pot smokers were on hand at the Massachusetts Statehouse, sporting homemade jewelry and Rasta head wraps for their testimonies before the Joint Committee on Public Health. But the pachouli stench was overpowered by compelling words from folks who need weed just to stand up and hold down food.

Select Massachusetts legislators have been trying to sanction medical grass for decades, according to veteran Amherst senator Stanley Rosenberg, a lead sponsor of the Senate bill. Still for a number of reasons, the commonwealth has yet to deliver for its most vulnerable citizens. Despite marijuana decriminalization, and reduced risk for those carrying less than one ounce, anyone caught growing cannabis faces severe penalties. To medical marijuana advocates, that's unacceptable.

Bolstering the state's most sophisticated push for prescription weed yet – 27 legislators co-sponsored the House bill – more than 80 citizens filled hearing room A-1 for several hours of testimony yesterday. Setting the tone, Brookline representative (and lead House sponsor) Frank Smizik described the measure – formally known as the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Act – as a matter of “compassion,” explaining the obvious but oft-ignored fact that trees are less harmful than most legal drugs.

Anyone interested in the detailed mechanics of the bills should read them in full. But for the sake of clarity here are some basic elements:

-First and foremost, this is an “act to protect patients with debilitating medical conditions, as well as their practitioners and designated caregivers, from arrest and prosecution.” In other words: THIS IS NOT FULL-OUT LEGALIZE AND TAX LEGISLATION!!!

-This bill would set up a marijuana prescription and dispensary system similar to those currently in 13 other states, including neighboring Maine and Rhode Island. If passed, however, there won't be a might-as-well-be-legal free-for-all like in California, but rather a maximum of 19 licensed (and heavily regulated) medical treatment centers statewide.

-These medical treatment centers will be not-for-profit entities that are permitted to “acquire, possess, cultivate, manufacture, deliver, transfer, transport, supply, sell, and/or dispense marijuana” to qualifying patients and other approved cardholders like primary caregivers and treatment workers.

-In order to obtain a marijuana card from the Department of Public Health, patients must get written certification from a licensed practitioner (just like any other prescription drug). Qualifying ailments include cancer, glaucoma, and post traumatic stress disorder.

-Qualified patients (and their caregivers) can either use not-for-profit resources, or grow marijuana on their own (cardholders can legally possess up to 24 plants, and between four and eight ounces of smokable weed).

Presentations to the joint committee ranged from fact-filled to frightening, with one bill proponent pleading – while holding up two soda can-sized pill bottles – “What are you saying? That I either have to take these or break the law? Why should I be a junkie just so I don't have to be in pain?” Another gentleman, testifying from his wheelchair, spoke through a computer on account of his suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease. “I can't function without it,” he said, explaining how weed relaxes his his nerve and muscle spasms. “But I don't want to go to jail for it.”

Some legislators seemed to get it. Medford representative Carl Sciortino, who sits on the committee and co-sponsored H625, even pressed a bill opponent to justify claims that marijuana is a gateway drug. Joint committee co-chair and Jamaica Plain representative Jeffrey Sanchez also showed a sincere understanding, asking questions that demonstrated an apparent commitment to advancing meaningful reform.

Other lawmakers, however, gave insight into why Mass has yet to make this happen. Lincoln senator Susan Fargo suggested the potential benefits of THC alternatives. Worcester senator Harriette Chandler touted the testimony of former Worcester commissioner of public health Leonard Morse – even though she admittedly missed most of it! One of the few outspoken opponents of H625 in the room, Morse rejects this particular measure on grounds that doctors don't know enough about weed.

Others in the packed conference room took issue with the House and Senate bills for other reasons. Attorney Steven Epstein, who founded the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (MassCann/NORML) 20 years ago, believes H625 is unconstitutional on grounds that “people have the right to self-medicate.” He's also skeptical of the bill's livelihood, since powerful law enforcement officials are lobbying hard against marijuana prohibition. (It should be noted that legislators heard powerful testimony from members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who hopefully convinced some that the war on drugs is a sham).

But for most people in the crowded room, it's too risky to hold out for legalized weed. “This is an issue of life and death for a lot of people,” said Erik Wunderlich, a board member of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, in an interview outside of the conference room. A chronic pain sufferer whose wife also has severe ailments, Wunderlich says there are countless people who count on marijuana just to make their final days tolerable. “This is not about getting high. This is about social justice.”

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  • Mike Cann said:

    Thank you, Mr. Faraone and the Phoenix. Missed this hearing because of work but I've been to more than I would like to count and it is truly frustrating to hear the testimony from patients who really do need this and then see nothing happen. Hopefully not this time. Looking forward to the legalization hearing at the State House later this summer. And working on a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana because as Erik W. says this is a civil rights issue. People need medicine, medical marijuana bills help but they do not go far enough. Complete marijuana legalization, there are many reasons but number one for me is for the patients who need it..

    June 29, 2011 2:04 PM
  • Canna Firm said:

    Too bad we were left out of this article. No one brought up the loop holes and the grey areas of the bill. Canna Firm shed light on the good and bad within this industry. 19 dispensaries in the state with no regulation will ultimately profit greatly on patients. Marijuana costs less than 500 a pound to cultivate....Why charge patients upwards of 9k?? Price ceilings need to be put in place. Lab testing also needs to be put in place. Canna Firm has the common sense solutions.

    June 29, 2011 2:35 PM
  • leeprew said:

    'Morse rejects this particular measure on grounds that doctors don't know enough about weed.' What!! Marijuana is one of the most highly researched substances known to man!! Which is why it has been used medicinally for over 5000 years. All recent studies conclude that it is less harmful then practically all other widely used illegal (and legal prescription) narcotics and should be reclassified or decriminalised. Not surprising that these ignorant politicians have not chosen to read any of these investigations as they are a bunch of hypocritical ill-educated dictators!    

    June 29, 2011 5:37 PM
  • Dave K said:

    Ignorance can be remedied through education.  There is absolutely no cure for STUPID.

    June 29, 2011 8:31 PM
  • Ankush S said:

    Leeprew: I am all for the legalization of marijuana, let alone the introduction of medical marijuana in the state of MA. However, please do not spread messages that have no basis in fact-- all this is does is water down the argument for the end of marijuana prohibition.

    Mr. Morse is correct-- doctors do not know enough about weed. I smoke weed. Every day. I am also bipolar. I know for certain that there are days when marijuana helps me. Other days when it makes things worse for me. I choose to continue to smoke it because I am not aware of anything else that helps me (and I am too afraid of other medications suggested to me, like Abilify).

    There has been very little research on marijuana. This is a fact. The government at the very least needs to allow properly funded programs to learn about this plant. And perhaps provide a scientific basis for the medicinal properties of this plant.

    June 30, 2011 11:49 AM
  • Marijuana strain reviews said:

    Marijuana is a great quality plant, it has been used for almost everything by many cultures before the us declared war with it. never be afraid to enjoy marijuana and check out our strain guide //

    June 30, 2011 2:11 PM
  • TruthArtist said:

    "Don't know enough?" Humans have been using cannabis for at least several thousand years to relieve pain in various forms (mental, physical, emotional) without a single case recorded of death, or even moderately-serious impairment, while we've been shoveling prescription drugs like antidepressants down people's throats without (admittedly!) having even a remote understanding of how they work for a few decades now (and since almost immediately after they were invented, not grown), and with the side effects of increased depression and occasional suicide! And we fully understand that cigarettes cause cancer - fact, yet they're still legal. Understanding has nothing to do with it, humans - especially politicians - have little to no understanding of what they're arguing about most of the time. You can not learn anything other than how to fight better while you are fighting (arguing). Point is, we know that cannabis helps people for minimal risk, and ignorant, traditionalist, fear-mongers can not accept that because they want you to believe their "you-have-to work-hard-to-deserve-good-things-even-if-terrible-things-happen-to-you-and-even-then-they-can't-be-too-good-or-it-must-be-'bad-for-everyone'" society. What else do you need to know? Makes me nauseous...

    June 30, 2011 8:47 PM
  • Chris D. said:

    On behalf of MA medical marijuana advocates (and as a patient diagnosed with health issues covered by the legislation) thanks for the coverage. (Though I would have preferred the article without the "pachouli stench" reference - though this type of language may get folks' attention in media, fueling the flames of inaccurate stereotypes can slow progress on this important issue.)

    July 1, 2011 9:09 AM
  • Chris D. said:

    On behalf of MA medical marijuana advocates (and as a patient diagnosed with health issues covered by the legislation) thanks for the coverage. (Though I would have preferred the article without the "pachouli stench" reference - though this type of language may get folks' attention in media, fueling the flames of inaccurate stereotypes can slow progress on this important issue.)

    July 1, 2011 9:09 AM
  • testified said:

    there were no rastas present.

    July 2, 2011 6:09 PM
  • Dave Anonymous said:

    i am a chronic pain sufferer and use mj almost every day to supplement my prescribed meds(morphine)which doesn't really relieve my pain and it also makes you physically dependent. i would much rather have legalized herb for my pain than pills. it would also be nice to just go to a dispensary and pick up high quality bud and edibles without fear of arrest and imprisonment

    July 3, 2011 1:26 PM
  • the cisco kid said:

    your comments on morse were not entirely accurate.  i attended the hearing, and while the good doctor has some issues with the bill, he told the committee that, ultimately, he supports it.  

    and your snide asides about "rastas" and "stench" were way off base.  the rasta dude you refer

    to--and there was only one in the room--is, in fact, a respected caregiver who has helped many dying patients achieve a better quality of life.  

    think before you shoot, my friend.

    July 11, 2011 3:06 PM
  • James said:

    Are you kiddin me or what ?? This is a redicious confersation !! Legalize it now !! And to all the people who continue to get their meds thru illegal means !! God bless you !! It's all gonna be better now !! I think the politicians finally realize that they cant bullshit the public anymore !! I mean, even the people who don't use weed, know it's harmless !!

    July 14, 2011 9:00 PM
  • Dantheman360101 said:

    does anyone know when they are going to make the official decision to legalize MMJ or leave it illegal it has been over 6 months.

    I am 17 with epilepsy and have used to use it recreationally which I am not recommending weed is very addictive to some people and not to others. I also used it to relieve stress and prevent seizures. I am outraged that in the 21st century this is even a debate. We have pain clinics everywhere and as far as I'm concerned OCs and heroin are hard drugs for medical purposes! Also most of these people are so worried about weed becoming to easily accessible to minors. Well that may be so but consider what kids are smoking today mids, leaves, stems, meth, crack, PCP laced bud and in some cases dealers have been known to put glass beads on there bud to make it look better. The way I look at it more weed that isn't laced and mixed with random things would be better for our youth than less drugs that are.

    August 3, 2011 12:16 AM

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