By Kyle Cheney and Matt Murphy / State House News Service | Thursday, July 21, 2011 | http://www.bostonherald.com | Local PoliticsAdvocates for legislation sanctioning medical marijuana for chronically ill Massachusetts residents are eyeing a 2012 ballot drive to get the long-stalled bill across the finish line, should their efforts in the Legislature fail to gain traction.
“Our goal is the Legislature, but there is a possibility they won’t act before May of 2012,” said Whitney Taylor, field director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the bill.
Taylor, who helped lead the successful 2008 ballot drive to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, said backers of medical marijuana intend to file the 10 signatures required to begin the process of placing a petition on the 2012 ballot. Those signatures are due by Aug. 3.
“What’s the hurt in moving forward and having all avenues available to us?” Taylor said. “Regardless of what happens, we now have options.”
Legislation to establish a regulatory framework for medical marijuana, filed by Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline) and Senate President Pro Tempore Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) is awaiting action in the Committee on Public Health.
Advocates have expressed hope that the committee would endorse their proposal, which they argue would help chronically ill patients relieve pain through marijuana, a natural substance, rather than through powerful pain medication. The bill, supporters say, contains safeguards to prevent abuse.
Critics have warned that because marijuana has long been classified federally as an illegal substance, Massachusetts residents could be subject to federal prosecution should Massachusetts pass the proposal and the Obama administration or a future administration crack down. Opponents also worry that a state law that sanctions the distribution of marijuana through medical dispensaries would lead to an uptick in illegal activity.
Smizik said his focus would remain on passing his bill through the Legislature, declining to speculate whether the threat of a ballot drive would help push the issue to a vote.
“There have been times when a ballot question strengthens your efforts and times when it doesn’t help at all, so that’s a hard question. I think they’re doing it because the polls show 80 percent of people support it,” Smizik said.
A Suffolk University poll of 500 registered Massachusetts voters taken in September 2009 found that 81 percent of voters supported allowing seriously or terminally ill patients to use marijuana if approved by a doctor, while just 17 percent opposed. The poll showed 2 percent of voters undecided.
“Personally I think marijuana is safer than Oxycontin. That’s a gateway drug manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. We’re just focused on making sure patients have an alternative,” Smizik said.
Taylor said the combination of Rosenberg and Smizik’s work in the Legislature gave supporters that sense that the legislation has “some steam behind it.” She said any ballot question would be modeled on their legislation.
If advocates choose to pursue a ballot question, Attorney General Martha Coakley would first need to certify that their proposed question meets standards for initiative petitions. Her decision would be due Sept. 7. If the question wins Coakley’s approval, supporters would need to gather 68,911 signatures by late November.
If the signature drive is successful, lawmakers would have until the first week of May 2012 to act on the proposal, offer an alternative or opt to let the measure proceed to the ballot. If the Legislature rejects the measure or chooses not to act, sponsors of the petition would need to collect an additional 11,485 signatures by early July 2012. If successful, the measure would appear on the ballot in November 2012.
Smizik said he did not want to comment on his support for a ballot question or the prospects of winning at the polls until he had exhausted all his other options.
“I’m not going to say that until we can’t do it anymore. I’d rather do it through the Legislature. I think that’s a better way to pass legislation,” Smizik said.
Under the bill, patients suffering from conditions that include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease and other conditions that result in severe, chronic pain or “wasting” would be eligible for medical marijuana, provided a doctor issues a written recommendation that the benefits would outweigh the risks. The proposal would then require that the Department of Public Health certify that recommendation and issue a registration card to the patient, adding another layer of regulation that supporters said would help prevent abuses of the system.
Sixteen states have legalized medical marijuana, including Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island.
Legislation sanctioning medical marijuana has stalled for decades, winning strong support during committee hearings and several dozen cosponsors in the House and Senate, but never advancing to the floor.
Last year, nonbinding ballot questions in six House districts testing voters’ support for medical marijuana showed strong support for the policy in Republican-held districts.
When asked “Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would allow patients, with their doctor’s written recommendation, to possess, grow, and purchase marijuana for medical use?” voters supported the proposal in districts held by Reps. George Ross (R-Attleboro), Elizabeth Poirier (R-North Attleborough), Todd Smola (R-Palmer), Daniel Winslow (R-Wrentham), John Mahoney (D-Worcester) and Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton).
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