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Voters to Decide Marijuana and Right to Die

Saturday, July 14, 2012


This year, Mass voters will have a say on three contested issues -- legalizing marijuana, prescribed medication to end one's life, and increased transparency in car repair.

The two hot button issues, legalized medical use of marijuana and prescribed medication to end the life of a terminally-ill patient, are seeing much attention from constituents and groups formed in support or defense.

A Step Beyond Decriminalization

Question 3 on this year’s ballot asks voters to decide the legalization of medical marijuana, which would take the status of the drug one step beyond its current status.

MassCann, a local educational organization that is a part of NORML the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is highly confident that Mass voters will see the benefits in voting this into law.

The group’s treasurer, Bill Downing, said that use is widespread enough now that he doesn’t see it as being an issue.

“I’ve said this many times to many people and no one’s been able to tell me I’m wrong. There’s no political ‘issue’ behind this, and it’s hard to call this an issue,” he said. “That’s so lopsided. At what point is something so popular that’s no longer called an issue. I think It’s reached that point.”

Marijuana is already decriminalized in Massachusetts, meaning that anyone over 18 caught with less than an ounce of the drug can only be fined $100. Unless the offender is in possession of more than that amount, it is a civil offense. 

“I think it’s good for Massachusetts,” Downing said.

The Mass Medical Society has publicly spoken out about the negative health effects of the drugs, to which Downing says that they don’t know anything about marijuana because the substance has no drug reps to push it, unlike so many prescriptions.

“They know almost nothing about cannabis and its medical properties. The primary reason is they’re taught almost nothing about it in med school or medical literature or pamphlets or salesmen coming to tell them about it as all other prescription drugs do,” he said. “Because of reefer madness – of course they’re afraid of it.

The Opposition

Kevin Sabet of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance says that question three is not the way to get a responsible medical marijuana law passed.

“It would allow anyone to own a pot shop essentially to sell to anyone with a doctor’s note,” he said. Sabet talked about the development of non-smoke medication.

“We need medications like that actually proven through clinical trials as opposed to a 21-year-old kid with no medical background telling me which marijuana to take for cancer,” Sabet said.

He raised the point that pills for chemotherapy patients and those struggling with appetite issues and chronic nausea already exist.

“This is not a way to help the chronically ill. There already a pill – Merinol. You can get it in a pill form today. Another reason why question three is not the way to go.”

Downing says that these pills don’t do anything to help the chronically ill fight their problems.

“If you were a patient suffering from chemotherapy treatments, the THC pill is almost useless because it’s a pill. The problem you’re dealing with is vomiting. A pill doesn’t help vomiting,” he said. “Anyone with chemo and tell you that it’s a sick joke. It’s also not as effective. THC isn’t actually the ingredient that’s best at combating nausea.”

Downing added that there are government restrictions on research to show the positive effects of marijuana, but Sabet contested that statement.

“The National Institute on Drug Abuse controls most of the research on illegal drugs. They are restricted,” Downing said.

If passed, Mass would be the eighteenth state to have a law prohibiting medical marijuana. Still, Sabet and other opponents of the legalization say that voters will understand that this law is not good for the state.

“I think voters will be smart enough to see this isn’t the answer,” he said. “We don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine, so why would we smoke marijuana to get the effects of a pill form?”

Right to Die

Another ballot question that is raising red flags for some is question two, Prescribing Medication to End Life.

So far, the only state to have a law allowing terminally-ill patients to be prescribed medication to end their lives is Oregon, which has kept the legislation for fifteen years.

Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion & Choices has appeared on NBC News, CNN Crossfire, 60 Minutes, NPR, and The Today Show to speak about the issue and believes that it’s all about allowing those who are going to die the option to die how they want to.

“This law in Oregon has resulted in huge improvement in people’s end of life experiences, comfort care, hospice and the way people anticipate the end of their lives, giving people peace of mind,” Coombs Lee said. “Everyone achieves peace of mind.”

She gave some figures that show that of the patients who ask for the prescription, few actually end up using the method. Coombs Lee says that peace of mind comes mainly from patients knowing that option is there.

She said that one terminally ill patients out of six talks about aid and dying. If it comes down to it, one out of 50 talks with their doctor.

“They begin to get an idea if the doctor would participate,” she said. “One in one thousand end up taking it. Many go through eligibility and never bother to take.”

All About Choice

While Coombs Lee shows that many leave the option, Fitchburg physician, Mark Rollo says that the legislation would actually inhibit a patient’s choice, especially in difficult economic times. He pinpoints the insurance companies and government that would make the law an issue.

“I think it’s bad for Massachusetts for a number of reasons. A lot of people feel this should be peoples’ choice. They feel that other people might want the choice. My contention is that this will actually give us less choice,” he said. “When you legalize that, you have created a new medical procedure that will be used by governments and insurance companies as a cheaper way to take care of your problem.”

Rollo says that with the advent of Obamacare, “What better way in the mind of a bureaucrat to save some money. Patients can maybe get in line for the expensive treatment, but in the meantime you can take this suicide pill.”

Coombs Lee says that opponents try to use scare tactics.

“Anti-choice opponents manage to scare people and make up scary stories. ‘People will be killing themselves all over the place.’ That flies in the face of the human condition,” she said. “We don’t want to die. And people dying of terminal illnesses don’t want to die any more than anyone else.”

A Matter of Safety

Coombs Lee says that the legislation is also about keeping people who want to end their lives safe in doing so.

“This way, people don’t have to use guns or worry, ‘What if I miss?’ They don’t have to resort to car accidents. That’s not the legacy they would like to leave. People want to hold and be held by the people who love them in their moments of dying. They don’t want to be surrounded by machines and tubes.”
She says the state would benefit from more open conversations about the topic. Gallup polls show, she said, that people across the country care about the issue.

A Lot of Work to Do

Fitchburg physician, Rollo, says that at the current state, the issue is polling that it will pass.

“My hope is that once this heats up in the fall that it will change. There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “When it’s first presented people see it as an idea of choice. They think, why not give people the choice, but it will evolve into less of a choice.”

He said, as a doctor, he sees many patients driven to wanting this option out of feeling guilty.

“I take care of a lot of elderly patients,” Rollo said. “They don’t feel like they want to be a burden. And if this law is out there, they will feel more pressure that they should end their lives. That’s the main reason people do. It’s not pain. We can control that. It’s because they feel like they’re a burden. That’s what this law will do.”

These issues will likely heat up as November approaches, when voters will decide these two serious debates that affect the state’s population. 


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