Massachusetts tackles the medical marijuana question

This November Massachusetts voters will determine whether the state should allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Some say the law could be the next step to full legalization in the state.   

Ted S. Warren/AP
Maria Castro, a patient services representative at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, waits for customers Oct. 10, in Seattle. Massachusetts is on the verge of legalizing the use of medical marijuana by ballot initiative this November.

As a neuropsychologist and Harvard Medical School neurology instructor, Peter Hayashi had access to the best treatments after he suffered a severe shoulder injury and developed chronic, debilitating nerve pain.

He tried painkillers, physical therapy, acupuncture, massage and other pain management techniques, but nothing helped as much as marijuana.

Now Hayashi is a leading supporter of a Massachusetts ballot question that would eliminate state criminal and civil penalties for the medical use of marijuana by people with cancer, hepatitis C, Parkinson's Disease, AIDS or other conditions determined by a patient's doctor.

"Medical marijuana gives me a type of pain relief that I have not gotten from any other medication," said Hayashi, 56, of Newton, who has been disabled for seven years.

"I'm definitely more functional if I use medical marijuana. I'm more likely to get up, make dinner, bake a loaf of bread or help my son with his homework."

Opponents say the law is ripe for abuse and fraud, and could lead to a proliferation of marijuana dispensaries or "pot shops," which are difficult to regulate.

"It's not a debate about having compassion for the ill. It's about passing a law that would promote widespread recreational use of marijuana as well as increase our youth pot addiction rates," said Heidi Heilman, who heads the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, a group working to defeat Question 3 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The law would require patients to get written certifications from their doctors that they have a specific medical condition.

It would allow for nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers regulated by the state to grow and provide marijuana to patients or their caregivers. The number of treatment centers would be limited to 35 in the first year, but after that, more could be set up.

For patients who have limited access to a treatment center, the law would allow them to grow marijuana plants to produce a 60-day supply for the patient's own use.

Heilman said the law, as written, could lead to abuses seen in some of the other 17 states where medical marijuana has been legalized, including California and Colorado, where hundreds of marijuana dispensaries have popped up and prompted complaints about increased crime and other social problems. She also sees the ballot question as the next step toward full legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts. In 2008, the state decriminalized possession of marijuana in amounts under one ounce.

The Massachusetts Medical Society is also opposed to the law, arguing that anecdotal claims about its effectiveness have not been proven through the same scientific testing as other drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that marijuana smoke contains more poisons that tobacco smoke. The group says it does encourage the development of reliable, non-smoked forms of marijuana for medical use.

"We're just asking that the kind of science we apply to all forms of therapy be applied to the use of marijuana," said Dr. Richard Aghababian, president of the society.

But patients like Nancy Nangeroni say they should be able to get something that can ease their pain without doing something illegal. Nangeroni, a Web designer form Beverly, suffered a spine injury in a 2004 car accident. Since then, she's had chronic pain, headaches and dizziness.

"It would be really nice not to put anyone else at risk in order to provide me with a supply," she said. "There are some days when marijuana is the only thing that makes it possible for me to be productive."

Proponents have raised more than a million dollars to fund a campaign to collect signatures to put the question on the ballot and to promote the proposed law through public relations firm. The effort has been bankrolled almost entirely by Ohio billionaire Peter Lewis, who has funded marijuana initiatives in states around the country. Lewis is chairman of the board of the auto insurer Progressive Corp.

In contrast, Heilman's group has raised just $3,300.

Although the law lists nine specific medical conditions, it also says patients with "other conditions" can receive marijuana with written permission from their doctors.

"This law is so wide and so broad that we could look like California or Colorado in a few years," Heilman said.

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