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Many north of Boston joining medical marijuana debate

Linda Brantley of Amesbury supports the November ballot question to allow medical use of marijuana because she has seen firsthand the positive effect it can have for people suffering physical pain.

“My aunt was in the end stages of dying of ovarian cancer,” said Brantley, herself a survivor of the disease. “When you get to that stage of cancer, your system shuts down; you can’t eat or sleep and are in constant pain. She was able to secure some marijuana and it gave her quite a bit of comfort at the end of her life.”

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Everett Police Chief Steven A. Mazzie strongly opposes the ballot question, warning that it will result in wider use of the drug in general, negatively impacting public safety.

“In other states that have the law, the picture has not been very pretty,” Mazzie said. “Crime goes up, the diversion of drugs to young people is rampant, there is more drug addiction among young people.”

Residents and officials north of Boston are joining in the statewide debate over Ballot Question 3, the proposal to legalize the medical use of marijuana. The question would let a patient possess up to a 60-day supply of marijuana for their personal medical use, provided they meet certain requirements, including obtaining written certification from a physician that they have a serious condition and would likely benefit from the drug.

The proposed law would allow up to 35 nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers to grow marijuana and provide it to patients or their caregivers.

Seventeen other states, including Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont, have adopted medical marijuana laws.

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In anticipation of the possible passage of the ballot question, a number of local communities are considering zoning measures to bar marijuana dispensaries from being located within their borders.

Proposed bans will be taken up by Reading’s Nov. 13 Special Town Meeting and Wakefield’s Nov. 15 Town Meeting. Melrose is weighing a ban, and Malden is considering limiting dispensaries to its industrial areas.

Wakefield’s proposed ban was offered by the town’s substance abuse prevention coalition after another group petitioned for a Town Meeting article to locate a marijuana dispensary in town if the ballot question passes, according to Ruth Clay, health director for Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield. The latter proposal has since been dropped, though it remains on the warrant.

Officials in all three communities want to avoid an increase in crime and adolescent use of marijuana.

Leading the charge for Question 3 is a coalition of groups ranging from the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.  

Brantley, president of the New England Coalition for Cancer Survivorship — another of the supporting organizations — said if a doctor believes a patient would benefit from marijuana, “The patient and the doctor should be able to make that decision and the patient should be able to avail themselves of it legally.”

Patients who are suffering “should not have to deal with breaking the law to get something to make them feel better,” said Brantley, whose aunt had to purchase marijuana illegally.

But a number of statewide groups, including the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs — a group of police chiefs from the state’s largest cities — are joining in a coalition to oppose the question.

“It’s the next step toward legalization, which I think would be a disaster,” said Salem Police Chief Paul F. Tucker, secretary of the chiefs’ group.

Mazzie, who serves as president of the group, said the proposal would offer “too many loopholes, and allow a lot of . . . people to get their hands on marijuana who are not chronically ill.”

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, vice president of the chiefs association, also worries that “people, especially young people, are going to think that . . . if it’s legal at least in the state, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett also opposes the question.

“This is really, to me, an end run,” he said. “Every other medicine is approved by the [Federal Drug Administration]. If the whole purpose is medical dispensaries, then why aren’t the most prestigious medical entities behind this? If that happens, I’m willing to have an adult conversation about this.”

Karen Hawkes of Rowley, another supporter of the ballot question, said patients should have a right to use a drug that she knows from personal experience can relieve suffering.

Hawkes said she has endured severe full-body pains since suffering a stroke in 2005 that forced her to retire as a state trooper. But she has been able to ease that pain through the use of marijuana — purchased illegally — a practice she began when drugs prescribed by her doctor did not help and had debilitating side effects.

Before using marijuana, “I couldn’t sleep because I was in pain, so I was fatigued during the day,” leaving her largely unavailable for her children, Hawkes said. But marijuana — which she inhales with a vaporizer — has enabled her to resume some activities.

Northeast Behavioral Health, a Peabody-based agency that provides substance abuse and mental health treatment services, opposes legalizing medical marijuana because of concerns about the impact on young people, said the group’s chief executive, Kevin Norton.

“In every state that has it, we see an increase in use by adolescents,” he said, a trend that in turn causes “an increase in engagement in risky behavior . . . and potentially experimentation with other substances.”

Question 3 supporters said the law was written to avoid the problems in other states. 

“The beauty of the Massachusetts legislation is that we have learned from the mistakes of others,” Brantley said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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