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Lawmakers consider medical marijuana January 10, 2006 - ecnnews.com
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 Shore 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 already approved.
But the bill faces high hurdles. It is opposed by the Romney administration. Local lawmakers, aware of the plague of heroin and OxyContin addiction, want to ensure that 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, the state Department of Public Health would certify patients using or growing marijuana 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.
The bill was heard by a committee in December, but it's not clear when it will be heard by the full House.
Rep. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, is a co-sponsor of the bill and one of several area lawmakers who have expressed support for the proposal. L'Italien, whose district includes Boxford, thinks it can help people 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?"
Easing the pain
L'Italien's argument resonates with many area legislators, especially those who have family members or friends who have suffered with long-term ailments.
Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, who co-sponsored a similar bill, said his support for medical marijuana stems in part from his mother's battle with cancer. Keenan said his mother, who died in 1994, never used marijuana, but he said he would have supported her had she wanted to.
"I would have supported her if anything was going to ease her pain," he said. "I think that's what the focus has to be."
Keenan said anyone who takes advantage of the law for nonmedical reasons should be prosecuted, but he said the possibility of abuse should not stop lawmakers from approving the bill.
"This is not really about criminal activity," Keenan said. "This is more about being compassionate to those who are sick."
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 would like to see patients be able to get marijuana legally, if a doctor recommends it.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, D-Peabody, has long been an advocate of the medicinal use of the drug.
"I would vote for some version of this bill," he said. "The use of marijuana could be advantageous to a patient suffering from cancer or glaucoma."
Once opposed, Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, has come to favor the idea of legalized, government-regulated medical marijuana because of the drug's pain-relieving effects on those with serious illnesses, he said.
"If used properly, it's a benefit," Speliotis said. "If abused, it's a detriment."
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.
Marblehead Rep. Doug Petersen is willing to consider the bill, but he notes there's been no "groundswell" among constituents advocating for it. If it passes, he said lawmakers should take steps to ensure that medical use doesn't somehow bring acceptance for recreational use. "It should be totally controlled," he said.
Even if the Legislature approves the 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.
"I think, as it's presented, it's very problematic," Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said of the bill. "It's currently illegal to possess marijuana, not only at the state level, but at the federal level. Passing something that allows or encourages people to violate federal law is very troubling."
But he said the issue deserves more study.
"At the moment, I'm inclined to vote against it," Tarr said, "but I'm keeping the door open because it might relieve some suffering and we have to be aware of that."