Listening to Medical Marijuana

By ARIEL SHEARER  |  February 20, 2013


The Department of Public Health is moving forward with the development of Massachusetts's medical-marijuana regulations, despite efforts by state legislators to rewrite the law (see "Introducing Senator Buzzkill's New Pot Bill," January 11). During an interview with the Phoenix last Thursday, Governor Deval Patrick downplayed the legislature's efforts and reaffirmed that the DPH is on schedule to deliver regulations as prescribed by the ballot measure passed by voters in November 2012. Patrick added that the DPH didn't "need to reinvent the wheel," hinting that Massachusetts will end up with a plan closer to Colorado's than to California's.

Meanwhile, the DPH held its first public medical-marijuana "listening session" on February 13 in Worcester, and a second one the next day in Roxbury. A third is planned for next week in Holyoke. These informal listening sessions aren't meant to take the place of the public hearings required by law, which have yet to be scheduled. But along with Patrick's interview, the sessions are providing the first glimpse into what has been an opaque process — and they have already drawn an emotional response from both advocates and DPH Interim Commissioner Dr. Lauren Smith.

On the morning of Valentine's Day, Smith arrived at Roxbury Community College and took a seat at a long table next to her senior staff. Initially, Smith said she'd be leaving the session early — but she ended up staying for the duration.

On flyers distributed outside the meeting room, the DPH listed specific issues for speakers to address, including patient eligibility, debilitating medical conditions, guidance for physicians, treatment-center operations, and hardship cultivation registrations. Law-enforcement officers, businesspeople, lawyers, and medical professionals came prepared with targeted talking points.

But some patients' voices cracked as they tried to squeeze years of physical suffering into three-minute speeches.

A military veteran shared concerns about VA doctors not being able to issue medical-marijuana recommendations. He broke down while speaking of PTSD, and Smith appeared to wipe her eyes along with him. The panel took notes, nodded often, and thanked the public for coming out. But while the regulatory drafting process is slightly less murky, it's still unclear exactly who will be in charge of the DPH program.

"We haven't made a final decision yet on what bureau or department within DPH will supervise it — but we're probably pretty close," says Dave Kibbe, communications director for the DPH. "As you can see, we're working diligently moving the process forward."

Even with emotions running high for the course of the event, it was never a scene from the Freedom Rally. Advocates came dressed for a day in court. Patient coalition leaders and members also seized the opportunity to be heard, sharing deeply personal accounts of suffering and the search for relief. Members of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance and the Coalition for Responsible Patient Care repeatedly urged the DPH not to limit qualifying conditions, or restrict hardship-registration requirements — as had been recommended in a bill floated by State Senator John F. Keenan.

"Listing which conditions are worthy of receiving medical marijuana and which aren't would be a form of oppression and judgment . . . it should be between ourselves and our doctors," said John Kelly, a disability-rights advocate. "Don't put yourself into the position of a moral judge."

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  Topics: News Features , Deval Patrick, Medical Marijuana
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