Lawmakers, doctors, and others opposing a ballot question to legalize marijuana for medical use contended Monday that the question’s wording is flawed and would enable widespread recreational use of the drug.
A Globe poll last month found that 69 percent of respondents support the legalization measure. Gathered on the State House steps, the opponents argued that the ballot question does not stand up to scrutiny, contending it plays on compassion for those suffering from debilitating illnesses in hope of ultimately decriminalizing marijuana for all.
“This is not about being compassionate to those true, legitimate treatment needs,” said state Senator John F. Keenan, the Quincy Democrat who chairs the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse. “The residents of Massachusetts are being sold a law that goes way beyond the idea of being compassionate. Don’t be fooled. Please read the law.”
Supporters of the question disputed those assertions, prompting a spirited debate on the Beacon Street sidewalk between lawmakers and advocates on both sides.
Opponents who organized the event pointed to what they called the question’s “vague, ambiguous” language. They cited clauses that allow the drug to be prescribed not just to alleviate pain for cancer or glaucoma but for any “conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician,” and that permit patients to obtain a 60-day supply at once, which in states where medical marijuana is legal can mean half a pound.
Opponents of the measure known as Question 3 warned that storefront dispensaries could appear anywhere, that medical marijuana registration cards would be easy to obtain and never expire, that cardholders could acquire large stashes by visiting multiple dispensaries, and that the cards would make it harder for police to enforce laws for illegal possession or use if a cardholder is present in a group.
“This will mean more marijuana in the hands of our children,” said Representative Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat and mother of teenagers.
The 2,300-word proposal does not restrict dispensary locations, except to allow for up to five per county and 35 statewide. It says nothing about card expiration dates or visits to multiple dispensaries but prohibits possession of more than a 60-day supply. It also says fraudulent card use could be punished with up to six months in jail and that resale or distribution of marijuana for nonmedical use could be punished with up to five years in prison.
Supporters of the measure disputed the criticisms and said if voters approve the ballot question, strong regulations would be written by the state Department of Health.
The vote-no group filled the steps with teenagers and recovering drug addicts in treatment, while legislators, doctors, law enforcement leaders, and others poked at the language of the question and called marijuana a gateway drug.
Mayor Tom Koch of Quincy said the dispensaries could appear next to schools or addiction-treatment centers. Jay Broadhurst, the Worcester physician leading the coalition, called the list of diagnoses that would allow someone to qualify for the drug “outrageously broad” and “clinically useless.”
Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey and Norwood Police Chief William G. Brooks III, representing the state’s chiefs, said similar laws elsewhere brought unintended problems, with crime increasing near dispensaries and with the drugs ending up in the hands of those without cards.
As opponents spoke, supporters quietly distributed literature of their own. Representative Martin J. Walsh of Dorchester, who said he opposes the legalization effort as a cancer survivor and as someone who has lost family members to addiction, called them out.
When the crowd broke up, Walsh debated with two legalization supporters, Representative Frank Smizik of Brookline and Karen Munkacy, a nonpracticing physician from Newton.
“The Department of Public Health is going to issue regulations on this if it passes,” Munkacy said.
“Oh, I feel comfortable with that,” Walsh said.
“They’ll do a very good job,” Munkacy said.
“I’m concerned about the kids that were behind me up on the stairs,” Walsh said, saying the measure would make marijuana easier for all to obtain.
Munkacy, a breast cancer survivor, said she was motivated by the “horrible suffering” she experienced in treatment because she chose not to smoke marijuana, deciding not to break the law. She said the lessons of other states would yield regulations to make this “the most heavily regulated program in the country.”