At Medical Marijuana 'Listening Session,' State Hears Pleas, Fears

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Scott Murphy, from Auburndale, shifted nervously in his chair as he began to speak. Murphy was one of more than a dozen patients who came to Roxbury Community College on Thursday for a "listening session" on the state's new medical marijuana law.

State public health officials are taking input on many parts of the law they must define. The law authorizes the drug's use for patients with a “debilitating medical condition," but what does that include?

Murphy uses marijuana and several prescribed medications to manage ongoing back, leg and arm pain from a serious motorcycle accident years ago. Murphy claims marijuana is also effective in helping veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

"As you might be aware, we’re losing one soldier a day to suicide," Murphy said, his voice shaking. One of those soldiers was a close friend of Murphy’s, an Army buddy who killed himself last year.

In between sobs, Murphy told state regulators that "if medical marijuana could help one person, I would hope you would consider that." The panel nodded and smiled. The audience broke into applause.

Murphy won't be able to get a medical marijuana certificate through the Veterans Administration because doctors there are bound by the federal definition of marijuana as an illegal substance.

More than a dozen patients spoke Thursday morning about medical conditions they do hope the state will certify for treatment with marijuana.

"It provides a type of relief that no other medication even approaches," said Peter Hayashi, from Newton, who has nerve damage from surgery a dozen years ago that triggers pain at even the lightest touch. He says state regulations should not restrict when, or for which ailments, doctors can recommend marijuana.

"The conditions for which it is useful should be decided between the patient and the doctor, just like for any other condition," Hayashi said.

But others who testified Thursday want strict rules about when marijuana is an appropriate treatment and on who can grow it, whether at home or commercially.

"We just have such a strong, high drug problem right now in our community, that’s the fear," said Anne Buechs, of South Boston.

She also wants careful monitoring to make sure youth don’t have easier access to marijuana.

"Certainly there’s people that need it, we saw that today," Buechs said. "But how do you control that? That’s the biggest issue. I don’t think anyone has shown us in the state that they have really strong controls over anything — drugs or alcohol. So I find it hard to believe that they can do this."

State health regulators are weighing patient demands for easy access against concerns raised by parents who worry about more marijuana in kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

"We have to take a balanced approach along the way," said Lauren Smith, the state's interim public health commissioner. "We certainly heard today, as well as in Worcester [on Wednesday], that people very much want their condition not to be excluded, recognizing that only a specific number of conditions were mentioned by name in the statute."

The Department of Public Health is hearing from the public at three sessions — in Boston, Worcester and Holyoke on Feb. 27.

The question of how to interpret language that says marijuana is now legal for patients with a debilitating medical condition is one of many issues and definitions Smith and her team are supposed to resolve by May 1. Smith says she hopes to issue regulations that will define how marijuana can be used and sold legally for medical purposes in Massachusetts on time.

This program aired on February 14, 2013.

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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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