Medical marijuana bill likely on Mass. ballots this November

BOSTON -- "Mary Jane" is a bad nurse, according to opponents of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. Three bills debated by the Massachusetts Legislature this session would expand the use of pot in the commonwealth. One would legalize the drug outright, and the other two would approve medicinal use.

The bill to legalize marijuana in general had a hearing and its fate has not yet been announced. The Legislative bill that would legalize medicinal use has been sent back to committee for further study. That bill was prompted by a citizens initiative petition and would seek to create 35 marijuana distribution centers across the state. Its hearing was held April 10. If the Legislature fails to act on it, proponents can gather 11,500 signatures in order to place the measure on the Massachusetts ballot in November.

"We believe that it's unlikely that the Legislature would pass any of these radical bills with an election coming up in a few months," said Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

Mineau added that since marijuana is illegal under federal law, opponents are seeking legal remedies to keep the petition off the ballot. If that effort fails, voters will likely have their say in November. If the legislation passes, Massachusetts would become the 17th state to approve marijuana for medicinal use.

A poll released by Public Policy Polling on April 2 found that 53 percent of voters support legalizing medicinal use with 35 percent opposed and the rest undecided. Mineau stressed that the challenge in opposing such legislation will be educating the public.

"We definitely have an uphill battle in fighting this thing because marijuana is so popular, particularly among the younger generation," he said. "We know that medical marijuana is a gateway to legalized marijuana, and it just makes it that much easier for the youth to have access to it."

Heidi Heilman, chair of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, said that as access to the drug increases, youth are more inclined to use it. The alliance opposes all attempts to legalize marijuana use.

"This legislation throws our young people under the bus," she said. "We are worried about teen pot addiction. One in six young people who start using in their teen years becomes addicted to marijuana. It's the number one drug that puts adolescents in treatment in Massachusetts, and it trumps all other drugs combined."

Massachusetts ranks fifth in overall pot use, and every New England state is included in the top 15. The rate of use in Massachusetts has increased since possession of less than an ounce was decriminalized in 2009. The rate of marijuana use among commonwealth youth is 30 percent higher than the national average.

Heilman, who has worked in the youth drug prevention field for over 20 years, said that the decriminalization law caused many programs to lose the leverage they had to get help for young people abusing pot. Marijuana can rewire the teen brain and has been linked with psychosis, depression and other mental health problems.

"If people knew the real harms of marijuana, they would not want their kids to ever use it. And they would certainly think legalizing it would be insane," she said.

She said states have legalized medicinal marijuana because of "emotional testimony and personal opinion," not because there is proven therapeutic value to the drug.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released a position paper on marijuana last year, reaffirming the classification of marijuana as a controlled substance. Pot is not medicine and is not safe.

"Smoked marijuana has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medicinal value in treatment in the United States," the paper states. "The proposition that smoked marijuana is 'medicine' is, in sum, false-trickery used by those promoting wholesale legalization."

The DEA further states that marijuana is dangerous. It creates dependency, acts as a gateway drug, impairs health, promotes delinquent behavior and increases the number of drugged drivers.

"Legalization of marijuana, no matter how it begins, will come at the expense of our children and public safety," the paper states.

The DEA also cautions that the potency of the drug has more than doubled since 1983, adding, "This is not the marijuana of the 1970s."

For Your Marriage, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, warns parents on their website about the dangers of marijuana and urges them to inform themselves in order to discuss the issue openly with their children.

"This may be the most important debate you will ever have," the website states. "You are the most important influence when it comes to your kids experimenting with drugs."

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