Flanked by his service dog, Army veteran Stephen Mandile urged lawmakers Tuesday to expand medical marijuana access through a bill that he crafted to protect other disabled veterans from suffering as he has.
Mandile, who was injured in Iraq in 2005, was prescribed opioids for pain and became addicted, leading him to withdraw from his family and nearly take his own life.
“Cannabis helps me in ways that 57 medications that the Department of Veterans Affairs had me trying, in 10 years of returning from war, could not," Mandile told lawmakers, adding that marijuana “helped me achieve healing in my mind, body, and soul."
The Legislature’s joint committee on cannabis policy also heard testimony on a separate bill that would ban all marijuana-related billboards in the state. Several committee members signaled support for Mandile and his bill, which was filed by his representative, Michael Soter, a Bellingham Republican.
Soter noted that in Massachusetts, veterans are three times more likely than the rest of the population to die of an opioid overdose, according to a Department of Public Health report. That’s a higher disparity than nationwide, Soter added.
The bill would enable veterans to submit VA disability documents in lieu of a doctor’s certification recommending medical marijuana to treat a qualifying condition. Doctors’ certifications, which must be renewed yearly, can cost at least $150. Medical cannabis is not taxed and gives participants more options for products and retail locations than recreational marijuana does.
The bill would also add opioid use disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions that allow people to receive medical cannabis cards. The law currently includes a catch-all category for any debilitating conditions that doctors feel would benefit from the use of cannabis.
Ellen Taylor Brown, an Air Force veteran from Cotuit, said veterans were desperate for financial help with buying cannabis. She described spending a day waiting in line with hundreds of other veterans at a company that offered free one-time medical marijuana certifications.
“Everybody says ‘thank you’ to a veteran," Brown told the panel. "But you, right here, have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to directly impact those veterans for the better.”
Shaleen Title, one of the state’s five Cannabis Control Commission members, told the committee that the bill made sense and addressed concerns she’d long heard from veterans. She added that the system works well in Illinois.
But several speakers opposed the bill, including medical marijuana patients who argued that access should be expanded for all patients, not just veterans.
Dr. Jordan Tishler, a local physician who specializes in cannabis, submitted written testimony arguing that the bill would undermine veterans’ health. Sidestepping medical supervision, he said, would eliminate important protections against potential harms, such as cannabis overuse.
“A VA determination of disability is a financial decision made by an administrator, not a clinician, that solely has value for determining VA benefits," Tishler wrote, adding, “any current illness is an ongoing process subject to evolution and development worthy of care and guidance from medical professionals.”
The committee also heard arguments about a bill that would ban all marijuana-related billboards in the state because of concerns about influencing children.
Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, told the committee that she filed the bill after hearing about a billboard advertising Weedmaps, a marijuana review website, that was placed above a children’s school bus stop in Haverhill.
The billboard, she said, showed a young woman wearing sunglasses searching for marijuana dispensaries on her phone. State regulations currently restrict marijuana companies from advertising on billboards unless they “reasonably expect” at least 85 percent of the audience is over 21 years old. However, the rules only apply to licensed companies, not to websites such as Leafly or Weedmaps which aggregate dispensary information in a way similar to Yelp for restaurants.
“The intent of the legislation was there, when everyone worked on this, to make sure children were protected from invasive advertisements," DiZoglio said. She added that she would be open to adding alcohol to the ban in fairness.
Beside her sat Haverhill City Councilor Colin LePage, who said he lost two sons to substance abuse – a 23-year-old to alcohol and a 31-year-old to opioids. He decried the cultural normalization of drugs and alcohol among youths that he said billboards help perpetuate.
Hillary King, a cannabis consultant, testified against the billboard ban, saying the current rules are sufficient to protect kids. Enacting further restrictions on cannabis, she said, and not on lottery, gambling, strip clubs, and other adult businesses would continue “unjustifiable reefer-madness stigma.”
The committee did not say when it would vote on either bill. If approved, the measures would go before the full House and the Senate.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.