In 1999, Mainers voted overwhelmingly to allow doctors to recommend marijuana to patients suffering from debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and HIV. The U.S. Justice Department’s announcement last week that it will no longer prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers who are in full compliance with state laws suggests an emerging national consensus that decisions about whether marijuana is appropriate medicine for seriously ill people should be made by doctors, not law enforcement agents.
But qualified patients in Maine still face tremendous obstacles to getting the medicine their doctors recommend — obstacles that can prove insurmountable to some of the patients who would benefit most from marijuana.
Under current law, there is no safe and reliable way for patients to get marijuana. They must either grow their own — a daunting prospect for those sick enough to qualify under the law — or buy it on the black market.
If they do manage to find marijuana, patients are still subject to arrest, search and seizure of their medicine. They can be acquitted in court based on an argument of medical necessity — but often face protracted and expensive legal battles. They can lose their homes, their jobs and custody of their children just for using their medicine.
The Legislature has had 10 years to try to fix these problems. Twice in the past two years, patients’ rights advocates have brought proposals to the Legislature that would have provided qualified patients with access to medical marijuana. But instead of working with advocates to find a solution that works for everyone, the Legis-lature dismissed the proposals outright. This left patients and caregivers with no option but to appeal directly to the voters for relief — just as they did in 1999.
Question 5 on the Nov. 3 ballot provides people with debilitating diseases safe and reliable access to medical marijuana through a tightly regulated system of nonprofit dispensaries. It also protects those patients from arrest and prosecution as long as they are complying with the law, and protects them from discrimination in housing, employment, education and child custody unless their use of medical marijuana somehow presents a clear threat to the people around them.
Over the years, I have met many people who have told me about how marijuana eased the suffering of someone they loved who was undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from the painful spasms of multiple sclerosis. I have heard just as many stories of people who know the last days of a sister or brother or parent who was dy-ing of cancer or HIV could have been made easier by marijuana if only it had been available to them.
Question 5 is about one thing and one thing only: giving seriously ill people safe access to a medicine that can relieve their symptoms and dramatically improve their quality of life.
Nobody wants to come out publicly against making the last month’s of a dying person’s life more comfortable, and so opponents of Question 5 are using scare tactics, trying to convince voters that providing medicine to sick people will somehow increase teenage drug use.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Under the law, any dispensaries caught supplying marijuana to people who weren’t qualified patients would be shut down and their operators would be subject to both state and federal prosecution. Patients caught selling their medicine to other people would lose their right to grow mari-juana or to obtain marijuana from a dispensary and would face drug trafficking charges.
What’s more, the evidence shows that teenage marijuana use actually decreases when states pass medical marijuana laws.
Mainers have already made clear that they want sick people to have access to marijuana if their doctors believe it will help them. Question 5 is about making a law that voters already approved work in the real world. And its about moving the conversation about the best course of treatment for someone with a debilitating disease out of the courtroom and into the doctor’s office where it belongs.
On Nov. 3, vote yes for patients’ rights. Vote yes on Question 5.
Jonathan Leavitt is the coordinator for Maine Citizens for Patients Rights. He lives in Sumner.