Marijuana, suicide ballot questions debated at forum

Opponents and proponents of the ballot questions to legalize medical marijuana and to allow terminally ill patients to commit suicide sparred during a Ward 19 Democratic Committee forum on Oct. 2.

About 15 people attended the forum at the Nate Smith House, where the most contentious issue appeared to be whether to legalize medical marijuana.

The medical marijuana question is among several on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general election. If approved, a patient with a debilitating medical condition, such as Parkinson’s disease or AIDS, would be able to legally obtain medical marijuana.

Patients would be able to possess up to a 60-day supply. In the first year of the law, up to 35 medical marijuana centers, which would grow and provide the drug, would be allowed.

Eric McCoy, a city resident with multiple sclerosis (MS), said he uses marijuana to combat his illness. He called the legalization “the truly right thing to do.”

Marilyn Belmonte, executive director of Healthy Outcomes, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing teenage alcohol and drug abuse, said she agrees that McCoy should be able to smoke marijuana for his illness, but said the proposal does not provide enough regulation.

“The loopholes in this law are wide enough to drive a Mack truck through,” she said.

McCoy, who was diagnosed with MS in 1993, said he had never smoked marijuana before his illness. He said he has been smoking it now for 17 years and it allows him to lead an active life, including moving around his house without any assistance.

McCoy said without marijuana, his muscle spasms in his leg would be so bad he’d be bedridden for most of the day.

“Medical marijuana has allowed me to lead a relatively normal life,” he said. “It’s been a salvation for me.”

Belmonte noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not deemed marijuana “medical,” and that the FDA “protects us” by regulating all medications.

“To skirt around this is not the right way,” she said.

Belmonte listed what she said were several of the proposal’s loopholes, such as that medical marijuana would have no expiration date and would not require a prescription because it would be a recommendation from a doctor. She also said there would be no age requirement, which would lead to increased teenage drug abuse.

Ashley Emochs, a JP resident, asked if there is any age restriction on any medical treatment. Belmonte responded, “I’m not a doctor. I can’t answer that.”

Whitney Taylor of the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, who spoke with McCoy in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, said crafters of the bill are in complete agreement that they don’t want young people abusing marijuana.

Taylor noted that the proposal creates a brand new felony that leads up to a five-year sentence to anyone convicted of defrauding the medical marijuana system. She said the ballot question crafters, who included a former district attorney, learned from every mistake the 17 other states that have passed medical marijuana measures have made.

The debate over the suicide ballot question centered around choice. The question, if approved, would allow a doctor to give a person with a diagnosis of six months or less a prescription to obtain medication to end that person’s life.

The doctor would have to determine that the patient was mentally capable of making the decision. The patient would also have to communicate the request to the medication on two occasions, 15 days apart.

Carol Trust, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the law allows a terminally ill person to choose when and how to end the suffering.

She said the law is a compassionate one and it is not a choice between life or death, as “these people are dying.”

John Kelly of Second Thoughts, a group of disability activists formed to oppose the suicide ballot question, said the law constrains choice. He said the country has a profit-driven health care system and that “legal-assisted suicide is the cheapest solution,” implying that the system will push people towards the suicide option rather than the expensive health care option.

“This bill is too dangerous,” he said. “We think this bill needs more study.”

Kelly also said there is not enough regulation with the bill, saying he thinks a person could “doctor shop” under the proposal and that once the drugs leave the pharmacy, there is no oversight.

Kelly said some people outlive their terminal diagnosis. Mario Teran of Roslindale asked what percentage of people outlive their diagnosis and asked if there are any circumstances in which Kelly could support terminally-ill suicide.

Kelly responded that a study found 17 percent outlive their terminal diagnosis and deflected the circumstances question by saying his group is dealing with the current bill and that it is “totally flawed.”

A non-binding ballot question that will be on the ballot in state Reps. Jeffrey Sánchez’s (15th Suffolk) and Liz Malia’s (11th Suffolk) districts was talked about by John Hill of Move to Amend during the forum. The ballot question asks if the state representative from the district should vote in favor of a resolution that calls for Congress to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The Citizens United ruling was a landmark 2010 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political donations by corporations and unions.

Hill said the reason for the ballot question is to undo the influence of corporations and the super-rich on the political process. He said although the question is non-binding, it is still effective because it educates the public and can build political support.

“It’s a system not designed for the people anymore,” Hill said of the system under the Citizens United ruling.

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