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Needham's Board of Health speaks out against medical marijuana ballot question

Posted by Evan Allen  September 12, 2012 02:46 PM

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The Needham Board of Health announced its opposition to the passage of a statewide ballot question that would legalize medical marijuana in Massachusetts at a meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday night, according to Board of Health member Jane Fogg.

“We looked really at the practical nature of the law, and came down firmly on the side that we don’t see this is written in a way to prevent potential abuse,” said Fogg in an interview.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide whether to pass ballot question 3, which proposes allowing patients to possess up to a 60-day supply of marijuana for their personal medical use. It would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

Patients would need to have been diagnosed with a “debilitating medical condition,” and would need to have a written certification from their physician that marijuana use would benefit them.

The law would allow a patient to appoint a personal caregiver who is at least 21 years old to help them use marijuana, but who would not be allowed to use it themselves.

It would allow nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers to grow, process and provide marijuana to patients and caregivers. In 2013, no more than 35 centers would be allowed, with no more than five in each county. Some patients would be allowed to grow their own 60-day supply of marijuana in a closed facility, if they have a financial hardship, live too far from a treatment center, or cannot access transportation.

Fogg said that the board has been studying the question, and separated its investigation into two parts: is marijuana medicine, and is this law the right vehicle to deliver it to qualified patients?

On the first issue, said Fogg, the Board acknowledged that marijuana has the potential to be used as medicine, but feels that that more study must be done on different delivery methods, potency and dose, and possible side effects.

Fogg said that overall, the law is not written clearly enough to prevent abuse.

What constitutes a “60-day supply” is not defined – that will be decided by the State Department of Public Health. Prescribing other medications, she said, is a precise act: dosage and potency are easily quantifiable, and a 60-day supply is a specific amount. Not so with marijuana.

“Instead of giving a prescription for pain medication, it’s like I gave you a card and said, I can give you sixty days of narcotics,” she said.

The diagnosing criteria, she said, is open to interpretation by the doctor – which leaves open the question of whether an unscrupulous doctor could prescribe for profit instead of pain. The law defines a “debilitating medical condition” as “Cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician.” Leaving “other conditions” up to physicians is too broad, she said.

Regulating the actions of the personal caregiver, she said, would be difficult, as would be regulating home cultivation.

“We’re not saying we don’t believe in the potential of marijuana,” said Fogg. “We know that it can make people feel better. This doesn’t seem to be the right way to get it out into the mainstream.”

The ballot question is also troubling to Needham’s Coalition for Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Program Director Carol Read, who said in an interview that allowing medical marijuana could make the drug easier to obtain for youths in Needham, and that problems like driving under the influence could skyrocket.

“It’s not about restricting medicine for sick and dying people,” she said. “It’s about creating a whole new infrastructure for access to marijuana.”

Advocates for the law say that it does lay out penalties for abuse, and that easing the pain of patients should be the number one priority.

According to a summary of the law written by the attorney general, the law would not give immunity under federal law or obstruct federal law, would not supersede state law prohibiting possession, cultivation or sale of marijuana for nonmedical reasons, would not allow operation of a vehicle under the influence, would not require any doctors to authorize the medical use of marijuana, would not require the accommodation of the use of marijuana in workplaces, schools, correctional facilities or youth centers, and would not require accommodation of smoking in any public place.

There are also penalties laid out for abuse. The Department of Public Health could revoke any registration for violation, and fraudulent use of registration could be punished by six months in a house of correction or a fine of up to $500, according to the summary. Fraudulent use of registration for sale, distribution or trafficking of marijuana for non-medical use for profit could be punishable by up to five years in state prison or by two and a half years in a house of correction.

Writing in favor of the law, Linda Brantley, President of the New England Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, said:

“This proposal has been endorsed by many patients, their families, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials who believe that a smart, science-based approach can help suffering patients without encouraging inappropriate drug use. In fact, allowing the medical use of marijuana will lessen the need for dangerous narcotics like morphine and OxyContin.”

Fogg said that the Board’s position on the ballot question has nothing to do with whether marijuana is good or bad, or about whether marijuana use generally should be legalized.

“It’s very much about, Is this a safe way to deliver a medicine? And can this be abused by communities?” she said.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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