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SCOT LEHIGH

Medical marijuana is not a threat

Let’s look at the fears that cloud the issue of medical marijuana.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts voters must decide whether to let doctors prescribe medical marijuana for established patients who suffer from debilitating conditions. To hear some opponents tell it, if Question 3 prevails, it’s likely to lead to an overall increase in marijuana use, particularly among teenagers.

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That argument really doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. Here’s why. In 2008, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana was reduced to a civil offense in this state, punishable only by a $100 fine. That being so, Question 3 wouldn’t offer sudden opportunities for schemers to obtain a drug that is otherwise unavailable or that carries harsh legal penalties.

Indeed, the consequences for misusing medical marijuana are far worse than the fine a casual dope smoker could suffer under current law. Someone who fraudulently acquires medical marijuana for personal use could face six months in jail. Anyone caught selling his prescription marijuana risks up to five years in prison.

So let’s say you don’t have a medical need but nevertheless want some weed. Why, let’s even suppose that you are a cunning cannabis-coveting conniver. As you consider ways to obtain it, are you more likely to risk a $100 fine or half a decade in the slammer?

And consider this: Despite decriminalization, marijuana use among Massachusetts high-school students is actually down from a decade ago. Furthermore, a 2011 Harvard study of medical marijuana programs in other states found “no evidence that adoption of medical marijuana laws has increased marijuana use for non-medical purposes.”

Now, the issue itself may be peripheral to your life. But it is central to the lives of others.

“It takes away the pain so I can sleep. It gave me my life back, and it gave my kids their mother back.’’Karen Hawkes

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Former Massachusetts State Trooper Karen Hawkes, 45, of Rowley, had a stroke seven years ago, leaving her with pain so intense it kept her awake at night and rendered her chronically fatigued. Hawkes tried a dozen or so prescription medications, but they put her in a fog so thick it was hard to think straight, let alone raise her young children. Then she tried marijuana. “It takes away the pain so I can sleep,” she says, and without the pharmaceutical fog. “It gave me my life back, and it gave my kids their mother back.”

In 2008, Jerome Smith of Fall River fell asleep while driving, hit a bridge abutment, and came away from the accident paralyzed from the waist down and blind in one eye. He was left with “burning, shooting pain from my back to my toes” and muscle spasms so severe they sometimes jolted him out of his wheelchair. But the various prescription medications he took left him so dazed and devoid of energy that he became virtually bed bound.

Then, in February of this year, Smith, who is now 42, tried marijuana. It eased the pain and controlled the muscle spasms. Before long, he was out of bed, with plenty of energy to get around in his wheelchair.

“It has allowed me to get out and enjoy life,” he says.

Both Hawkes, who vaporizes her marijuana dose or takes it in tincture form, and Smith, who either vaporizes or eats his, say the type they use does not leave them feeling high or stoned.

The medical benefits of marijuana are widely recognized. Still, some opponents of Question 3 say the right course is for the federal Food and Drug Administration to research its effectiveness and, if persuaded, to approve it for prescription use. That way, it could be obtained at pharmacies, rather than from the limited number of nonprofit dispensaries Question 3 envisions.

But there, a Catch-22 looms: Marijuana can’t be approved for prescription use without being studied by the FDA — and the FDA won’t study marijuana while it’s federally classified as an illegal drug. Further, in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine a president taking the issue on. That’s why changes like these generally come at the state level.

This proposed law is carefully crafted to learn from other states’ experiences and avoid any of their mistakes. And if problems do develop, the Legislature, of course, can address them.

So when you go to the polls, don’t be put off by unfounded fears. Think of people like Karen and Jerome. People in serious pain. People who desperately want their lives back.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ GlobeScotLehigh
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