Med marijuana opponents predict crisis, say they’re “outgunned” financially

Reprint of 10/31/2012 article:

State House News Service

By Matt Murphy


STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 31, 2012….Opponents of a ballot question that would legalize medical marijuana in Massachusetts warned on Wednesday that voter approval of the initiative would unleash a “surefire public health and safety crisis in the Commonwealth” by increasing the available supply of marijuana to teenagers and young adults.

John Sofis Scheft, of the Bellotti Law Group, said the proposed law is rife with loopholes similar to those in states like California and Colorado that will lead to a proliferation of dispensaries and increased rates of addiction.

Despite being heavily outspent and trailing in the polls, Scheft said opponents are counting on voters to oppose the question once they learn what’s contained in the ballot initiative. “When they just look at the laws they always say to us, ‘Not this law. Not this way.’ Massachusetts is smarter than this,” he said.

Supporters of Question 3 say medical marijuana would be strictly regulated, will lessen the need for narcotics like morphine and OxyContin, and will provide a new option to “ease the suffering” of patients with cancer and other debilitating conditions.

Matt Allen, from the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, disputed the characterization of the ballot proposal as being in line with laws from other states where there have been problems with large numbers of dispensaries cropping up and easy access to the drug.

“There are no loopholes in this law. It is absolutely based on the best practices and lessons learned from the 17 others states. This is going to be nothing like that,” Allen said. He said the proposed law would allow doctors and patients to make appropriate decisions about treatment for diseases and chronic pain. Allen also said there was a limit of up to 35 dispensaries for the state unlike in California, and the ballot question proposes a new felony to protect against unauthorized access or distribution.

“We have limits and require that licenses are regulated by the state,” Allen said. “No one has more to lose than us, the patients counting on us if it’s not tightly controlled.”

Dozens of teenagers from Ostiguy Recovery High School in Boston joined Scheft at an event at the Omni Parker House Wednesday morning to advocate defeat of the ballot question, sharing personal stories of addiction that often started with marijuana.

A 19-year-old student who identified himself as “Sully” said he came from a family with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and was introduced by friends to marijuana at age 11. “They say marijuana is that gateway drug and for me that’s on point…All of this started with that first hit,” he said.

Sully said legalizing medical marijuana would “increase supply and demand” and make it easier for young people to gain access to the drug.

Bradley Sylvestre, 18, grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla. He said his father smoked weed, and he tried his first joint at age 8. “I smoked weed on a daily basis every day,” he said. “I stopped going to school. I would go to school high.” Sylvestre said he’s now on the road to recovery and wants to attend Salem State College and major in criminal justice so he can become a police officer.

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat and co-chairman of the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, attended and spoke at the event in opposition to the ballot question.

According to a comparison of New England medical marijuana laws compiled by Keenan’s office, Massachusetts would have the least restrictive definition of a debilitating medical condition to qualify for medical marijuana.

Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine already have medical marijuana laws.

Massachusetts would be the only New England state not to require parental consent if under 18, to not limit the number of patients a personal caregiver can have, to not have an expiration date on a medical marijuana cards, and to not requires dispensers to regularly renew their licenses or put limits on where dispensaries can be sited.

“This law is so poorly written it’s written to exploit the entire population, but I think specifically the young people,” Keenan said.

Lisa and Bill Brandon, the parents of Connor Brandon, who died this past summer from a drug overdose while attending an all-day rave at the Comcast Center, said increasing access to marijuana for teenagers will only lead to more tragedies. “The losers are going to be the kids and those poor people who have a predisposition to substance abuse. These poor people have a weakness and we don’t need to let them be exploited,” Bill Brandon said.

Results of a Suffolk University/WHDH poll of 600 likely general election voters were released this week and showed support for the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, 55 percent to 36 percent. Asked how they intend to swing public opinion in the days before the election, Scheft said, “We intend to do it by events like these and one voter at a time,” admitting, “We’re completely outgunned when it comes to financing.”

Financed almost completely by the Ohio chairman and retired CEO of Progressive Insurance Peter Lewis, the Committee for Compassionate Medicine has raised almost $554,000 in support of the question and spent $530,000, while the Vote No On Question 3 Committee was only formed in mid-July and has raised just $3,300.

Scheft said, “All of us in this room support compassionate care,” but cautioned that the proposed law was too open to exploitation.

The Massachusetts Medical Society has opposed the ballot question, calling for more resources to be put into research into the efficacy of medical marijuana, and ballot question opponents said supporters should go through the standard Food and Drug Administration approval process.

Dr. John Knight, from Boston Children’s Hospital, said decades of research point to the ease of availability and perceptions of a drug’s danger as the two most important factors in predicting usage rates. Knight said “very potent marijuana will become far more available” if the ballot question passes, going so far as to suggest the state might have to reopen mental health hospitals to treat increase incidences of schizophrenia.

Allen noted that the Massachusetts Nurses Association, cancer advocacy groups and the AIDS Action Committee have all backed Question 3 as a treatment option for certain patients. “It’s ridiculous to think these public health organizations have been tricked and there’s some nefarious scheme,” he said.

Kris Mineau, executive director of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said if the ballot question passed opponents will examine whether it might be possible to convince the Legislature to overturn the law.

“I think there is a positive atmosphere in the Legislature against this, but undoing the will of the people after an election is a challenge,” Mineau told the News Service. Bills filed in the House and Senate to legalize medical marijuana have failed, so far, to advance out of committee.


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