With Election Day just a month away, polls show strong public support in Massachusetts for a referendum that would legalize marijuana for medical use, joining 17 other states.
But prosecutors and police are sounding alarms about the initiative, saying it is ripe for exploitation and would lead to more drug addiction and crime.
While supporters say the law would strictly regulate who can dispense marijuana to people with painful medical conditions, law enforcement officials fear the system would be manipulated by drug dealers who would use nonprofit treatment centers as fronts for illicit operations.
“To think these establishments will not be fronts for illegal distribution and money-laundering, and reduce the street market price of marijuana, would be illogical,” said John Carmichael Jr., deputy police chief in Walpole, where police say they seized a pound of medical marijuana being sold illegally in April. “We’ll be creating a drug market, literally on the street.”
Supporters say law enforcement’s concerns are greatly exaggerated, and that the law would include enough safeguards to deter abuse. Access to the drug, they say, would bring relief to thousands of patients in chronic pain and provide an alternative to prescription painkillers.
But authorities point to other states that have approved the medical use of cannabis, such as California and Oregon, as cautionary tales. Storefront marijuana shops in Los Angeles have drawn frequent complaints and a crackdown from federal drug agents, and city police say some shops have been taken over by illegal drug dealers.
Such problems give rise to doubts that the government can effectively regulate the sale and production of medical marijuana. The state’s Public Health Department, which under the law is charged with overseeing the distribution centers, has not eased such doubts, declining to take a position on the law or to say whether it has begun to craft regulations for the law.
“This isn’t just a referendum on medical marijuana,” said Joseph Early Jr., the district attorney in Worcester County and president of the state’s district attorneys association. “It’s more than that. The experience in other states shows this doesn’t work, and we have to pay attention.”
Statewide coalitions of prosectors and police chiefs oppose the measure, known as Question 3, as does the Massachusetts Medical Society, which says there is “insufficient scientific information” about the safety of medicinal marijuana.
Law enforcement officials, however, are less concerned with the medicinal merits than the fear that dispensaries would skirt regulations and become easy targets for criminal activity.
“I don’t think there are any safeguards you can put on this to prevent abuse,” said Early, adding that he is “100 percent” certain the law will be flouted.
In Oregon, for example, illegal, for-profit distribution of medical marijuana has become rampant, according to a recent report by The Oregonian newspaper. Federal authorities have identified more than a dozen large-scale operations sending medical marijuana to a number of other states, the newspaper reported.
The trafficking of medicinal marijuana has also made its way to Massachusetts. In Walpole, police arresting three people in a drug bust uncovered, among other drugs, a pound of marijuana they believed was intended for medical use in Maine, where the prescribing of medical marijuana has been legal since 1999.
But supporters say the Massachusetts measure was specifically crafted to avoid the problems other states have encountered, and tout it as the country’s safest medical marijuana law.
It initially would limit the number of treatment centers to 35 to enable strict oversight, and requires patients to obtain written certification from a physician that they have a “specific debilitating medical condition.” Patients must have a “bona fide” relationship with the physician, to guard against unsanctioned sales.
Treatment centers would have to register with the state Public Health Department and pay an undetermined amount to offset administrative costs. Under the law, they are barred from hiring anyone with a felony drug conviction.
“It’s a law that has the advantage of what 17 other states have experienced,” said Robert Garvey, sheriff in Hampshire County and a supporter of the measure. “It has plenty of safeguards to make sure that only people who need the drug can obtain it.”
The law includes strict criminal penalties, Garvey notes. Selling marijuana for nonmedical use would be punishable by up to five years in state prison. Fraudulent purchases would be punishable by up to a six-month sentence in a house of correction.
Garvey said he believes such penalties are stiff enough to deter violators. He sees the measure as a medical issue, and believes those with painful conditions such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, and ALS deserve access to treatments that can ease their suffering.
“The good that this law will do in treating patients with debilitating diseases outweighs the other concerns,” he said. Garvey said that while marijuana is widely available, it is connected to far fewer crimes and social problems than alcohol.
Public opinion surveys suggest that many agree. A Suffolk University poll of likely voters taken last month found that 59 percent supported the proposed law, while 35 percent were opposed. A recent Boston Globe poll found that nearly 70 percent of voters backed the measure.
Law enforcement officials say they hope voters will take a close look at the law, and they warn of the unintended consequences of approving complex legislation through a ballot initiative.
“We’ve seen more violence around marijuana than a lot of other drugs,” said Steven Mazzie, chief of police in Everett. “You put more marijuana on the streets, you’re going to have more violence.”
Opponents also question whether the Public Health Department has the wherewithal to oversee the centers, especially with so little time to prepare. If approved, the measure would take effect Jan. 1.
A spokesman for the state agency declined comment last week.
“This decision would establish an entire separate pharmaceutical infrastructure,” said Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, an advocacy group that opposes the measure. “It’s a system that is easily exploited. It would allow unscrupulous individuals to make a profit.”
Gerry Leone, district attorney in Middlesex County, said he opposes the ballot question, but remains open to legalization of medical marijuana provided that “systemic accountability” prevents abuse in obtaining and distributing the drug.
Law enforcement officials say the medical marijuana law represents a backdoor attempt to legalize the drug entirely, and they worry that it sends a dangerous message to teenagers that marijuana is acceptable.
“It completely undercuts the prevention message,” said Robert Champagne, chief of the Peabody Police Department. “And it will bring a predictable host of social problems. From the view of many people, this is not about compassionate medicine.”
Champagne said the centers will allow drug dealers to “hide in plain sight.”
“I’m not naive enough to believe everyone is going to play fair here,” he said. “This is big business.”