Sánchez urged to push medical pot bill

John Ruch

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is “blocking” a State House bill that would legalize medical use of marijuana because of his “lack of compassion,” according to advocates who delivered more than 1,000 pro-legalization postcards from Jamaica Plain-area voters to the representative’s office this week.

Sánchez, who heads the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, said the year-old bill is being examined carefully, not blocked, because it is a complex issue.

“Everything in this committee is substantial,” said Sánchez. “We’re not naming the state cookie here, you know?”

House Bill 2160, as it is officially known, would legalize the medical use and possession of a certain amount of marijuana, and create a registration system for patients who use the drug.

Among the bill’s cosponsors is another JP state representative, Liz Malia, who told the Gazette that it essentially could die this month, depending on what the committee does.

“It’s a sensitive issue, and I think it probably always will be a sensitive issue,” Malia said of the legalization part of the medical marijuana bill. But, she added, “I’m not aware of any movement trying to kill this bill or oppose it.”

The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MASS CANN) collected signatures on the pro-medical marijuana postcards at various polling places in JP, Mission Hill and Roslindale during the recent special US Senate elections. MASS CANN officials delivered the stack of postcards to Sánchez’s State House office on Tuesday.

“The support for medical marijuana in Jamaica Plain is stunning,” said MASS CANN Director John Gibson in a press statement.

Sánchez’s committee held a hearing on the bill last May, which included testimony from MASS CANN. In a press statement, MASS CANN claimed that Sánchez now has the bill “tied up” and that it will likely “die” by the end of the month.

“Jeffrey Sánchez stands still and stays silent while people in his own district suffer,” said Dr. Keith Saunders, MASS CANN’s president, in a press statement. “It makes no sense that he would not permit a committee vote, unless he knows the bill would pass and he opposes it. It is an unseemly lack of compassion.”

“[There are] 350 bills in the committee, and all of them have to deal with something important in my district,” said Sánchez, noting the committee has released only about 25 percent of its bills recently. In most cases, “They’re not black-and-white issues,” he said.

“I wouldn’t blame it on Jeff at all,” Malia said of the bill’s lack of movement, noting Sánchez’s committee has dozens of important bills to consider.

But Malia, who chairs the legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, emphasized that she still supports the bill’s core concept.

“There is a very valid use” for medical marijuana, Malia said. “If it’s used appropriately, it can alleviate a lot of the discomfort and pain” of such conditions as chemotherapy side effects, she said.

At the same time, Malia said, “It seems to me [that] drugs that are legal have been grossly overmarketed.” She cited the highly addictive painkiller oxycodone as one notorious example.

Sánchez said he has no personal position on medical marijuana yet. “I don’t know enough about it,” he said. “I’m going to reserve judgment.”

He said that medical marijuana would help a variety of patients. But, he added, there are concerns about how to regulate it and make the system match federal law. The federal government has no clear stance on medical marijuana, and the 14 states that currently allow it all have different regulatory systems, he said.

Meanwhile, a “pure legalization bill” about marijuana is pending in a different State House committee, Sánchez said, explaining that both bills would have to reconcile.

All of these issues are being worked on in the committee so that any final proposal is viable, he said. “When something comes out of this committee, we get one chance to get it right,” he said.

For comparison, Sánchez pointed to a bill banning junk food in schools that recently left his committee after eight years.

“You could have characterized it as, ‘Nothing was happening,’ because nobody sees the work being done in the committee,” Sánchez said. But in fact, he said, the committee was gathering information, figuring out regulations and fighting the junk-food industry.

Malia noted that Sánchez’s committee will have to make a report on the bill’s situation this month, which could essentially declare it either alive or effectively dead, in procedural terms. The situation for that and many other bills right now is “crucial,” she said.

Sánchez said he is always eager to hear from constituents and to read whatever materials they drop off at his office.

JP has long been supportive of marijuana legalization. The successful 2008 statewide ballot initiative that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana was supported by about 78 percent of JP voters in a high-turnout election. A similar but non-binding ballot question in 2002 was supported by about 73 percent of JP voters.

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