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lawrence harmon

Reefer madness

ISTOCKPHOTO/GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION

Noncompliance is the term used in medical circles to describe the state of incautious patients who ignore medical advice even at the risk of serious consequences. The same label should apply to the almost 70 percent of Massachusetts voters who, according to a recent Globe poll, support the legalization of marijuana for medical use.

The Massachusetts Medical Society opposes the medical use of marijuana, or Question 3 as it appears on the November ballot. The organization representing more than 24,000 physicians and medical students warns that pot hasn’t been subjected to the “rigorous, scientific testing of other drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration’’ and that claims for its effectiveness are not scientifically proven. Those seeking a second opinion should consult the medical societies representing specialists who treat patients with cancer, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis — diseases often associated with medical marijuana treatment. They think that the effort to bring medical marijuana to Massachusetts is bogus, too.

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Question 3’s proponents speak glowingly of pot’s ability to reduce nausea, relax muscles, and kill pain, especially pain that results from injuries to the nervous system. If that is indeed the case, it argues for rapid research into the medicinal compounds of marijuana, safe delivery systems, and FDA approval. Instead, Question 3 backers under the banner of the Committee for Compassionate Medicine are pushing for the creation of up to 35 marijuana dispensaries across the state in 2013.

Police officers in Massachusetts aren’t hounding sick people who look to marijuana for relief, nor should they. Given that, voters might want to think twice before they open the door to pot marts in their communities.

Specifically, the law would eliminate state criminal and civil penalties for the medical use of marijuana by patients diagnosed with debilitating medical conditions. Patients would require written certification from a physician to purchase and possess a 60-day supply of the drug. Those who are unable to travel to a dispensary could receive authorization from the state Department of Public Health to grow their own weed.

The ballot initiative’s backers have made responsible efforts to avoid some of the problems associated with medical marijuana dispensaries in other states. These include background checks for employees, a statewide patient registry system, and attempts to ensure adequate documentation by a qualifying patient’s physician. The proposed law, however, still suffers from the kind of vague definitions that turned medical marijuana clinics in California, Colorado, Oregon, and other states into havens for stoners claiming to suffer from headaches, exhaustion, and muscle spasms. In Oregon, for example, 10 doctors wrote nearly half the recommendations for the nearly 50,000 registered users, according to Kevin Sabet, president of the Policy Solutions Lab in Cambridge.

Paging Dr. Feelgood. Paging Dr. Summeroff.

In 2008, Massachusetts voted to replace the criminal penalties for possession of one ounce of marijuana with a civil penalty of $100. The current ballot initiative would, in essence, legalize possession of about 3 ounces, the amount a patient might normally be expected to use in 60 days. Actually, the precise amount of what constitutes a 60-day supply would be determined by the state Department of Public Health. Yes, that’s the same agency that was gazing into space while one of its forensic chemists recently mishandled thousands of drug samples in a state crime laboratory.

Question 3 looks and feels like a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana. Nearly all of the funding for this ballot initiative comes courtesy of Peter Lewis, a billionaire philanthropist and harsh critic of the nation’s drug laws. Lewis, the former CEO of Progressive Corp., credits pot with getting him over the pain of a partial amputation. Let’s just say this isn’t a grassroots movement.

Sober research studies, including a recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that medical marijuana belonging to registered users is ending up in the hands of kids across the Denver metropolitan area. And not just once in a blue moon. Adolescent patients in a substance abuse treatment program reported using diverted medical marijuana a median of 50 times. More and more, this initiative sounds like trouble.

A strong case can be made that marijuana should be reclassified by the US Drug Enforcement Agency to encourage more research into its medical properties. But that’s not what this ballot initiative is all about. If marijuana truly relieves suffering in ways that other medicines cannot, then it belongs in pharmacies, not in sunny window sill planters or shady storefronts.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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