BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would legalize the use of marijuana to ease symptoms of chronic and debilitating illnesses and regulate the centers that distribute the drug.
“Marijuana has proven its medical efficacy,” Rep. Frank Smizik, D-Brookline, testified before the Legislature’s public health committee Tuesday. “This bill is about more than just common sense; it’s about compassion.”
Smizik is co-sponsoring the bill that would legalize and regulate the use of medical marijuana for patients with specific illnesses.
“As the law stands these patients are faced with the daunting decision between forgoing much needed relief and committing a criminal act,” Smizik said in a hearing room packed with supporters of the bill.
Under the proposal, patients suffering from illnesses including cancer, HIV or AIDS, glaucoma, epilepsy and degenerative diseases can obtain marijuana to ease symptoms caused by the disease or its treatment.
Patients and advocates say marijuana can ease nausea, seizures, muscle spasms, wasting syndrome, and severe pain without impairing the patient’s mental capacity the way prescription pain medication can.
“These seriously ill patients do not always have the luxury of popping a pill to ease their suffering,” Smizik said. “For some, relief cannot be found in the pharmaceuticals available to them. For others, the side effects of such drugs are too harsh to handle.”
The bill requires patients to obtain written confirmation of their need from a doctor and to then register with the Department of Public Health.
The department also would monitor and regulate the 19 dispensaries the bill would establish throughout the state.
While sufferers of chronic illness and their families showed overwhelming support for the bill at the hearing, there was concern the system would be abused without strict regulations.
“The greatest plague of the 21st century is drug use,” testified Leonard Morse, a doctor and former public health commissioner of Worcester.
Morse said he supports allowing patients access to marijuana for medical purposes, but wants assurance the proposed system would prevent misuse and abuse while educating doctors and patients about the drug
To recommend marijuana to patients, doctors should be registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency under the U.S. Department of Justice as doctors who prescribe controlled substances such as oxycodone must be, he said.
Doctors also should be taught more about the drug and check in with patients frequently to ensure they are being helped by the drug, but not abusing it, Morse said.
The current proposal would allow patients to have up to 24 marijuana plants stored in an enclosed, locked facility, and 4 ounces of usable marijuana, which Morse said might be too much.
“That will lead to a peripheral, careless use of marijuana,” he said.
Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, a co-sponsor of the bill, testified that strict oversight by the Department of Public Health will protect against these problems and others seen in other states that have legalized medical marijuana.
“Because we’re not the first in we can learn from what others have done,” Rosenberg said.
Sixteen states have legalized marijuana for medical use, including Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine.
Rosenberg said the department’s oversight would prevent an industry of commercial dispensaries and would prevent doctors from prescribing the drug to a patient with little evidence of a medical condition.
“We want to make sure only the people who really need it get it” Rosenberg said. “This isn’t a backdoor approach to providing widespread access to people.”
The cost of overseeing the dispensaries would be countered by registration fees and annual fees paid by the dispensaries, he said.
In 2008, residents overwhelmingly voted to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in the state. The new law established a civil fine of $100 for those caught with a small amount of marijuana in place of a possible of six months in jail and a $500 fine.