Ballot questions on patient rights await voters’ call

Massachusetts voters will get a chance in November to decide whether a doctor should accede to a dying patient’s request for medication that would end his or her life.

The proposed policy is one of three ballot initiatives voters will weigh in on when they head to the polls. The second would allow nonprofit treatment centers to grow and provide marijuana to patients with debilitating medical conditions, and the third, rendered largely moot by the Legislature, would have required auto manufacturers to provide access to car owners and independent repair shops seeking unavailable diagnostic information.

On the latter, lawmakers rushed through compromise legislation that satisfied both proponents and opponents of the initiative and Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill last week. The other two ballot questions remain in play, with two polls showing majority support for the medical marijuana initiative.

“I believe that doctors should have the right to recommend to patients what would be best for their patients,” said Bill Downing of the Mass. Cannabis Reform Coalition.

The ballot question will be the focus of a Sept. 15 rally proponents are staging on Boston Common, with Congressman Barney Frank headlining the list of speakers.

But state Rep. Marty Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, said he is “100 percent against” the initiative, which he called “another step by advocates to legalize marijuana.” Walsh added that Frank, who is retiring, “should stay out of it. I think he’s making a huge mistake here.”

According to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, which oversees elections and provides summaries of the ballot questions, a vote in favor of the ballot question would allow certain patients to obtain marijuana “produced and distributed by new state-regulated centers or, in specific hardship cases, to grow marijuana for their own use.” The state Department of Public Health would be in charge of regulations under the proposed initiative.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents more than 24,000 physicians and medical students, says there is “insufficient” information on the safety of medicinal marijuana and “until such time that scientific studies demonstrate its safety and efficacy, the Massachusetts Medical Society opposes the legalization of medicinal marijuana.”

But a pair of recent polls shows widespread support for a yes vote. Public Policy Polling in late June released a poll that said 57 percent of voters favored approving medical marijuana, while 33 percent were opposed. Earlier in June, a separate poll released by Western New England University Polling Institute and the Springfield Republican, showed 64 percent of voters in support and 27 percent opposed.

The former poll had a margin of error of 3.3 percent, while the latter’s margin was 4.4 percent.

The Western New England University poll also stated that 60 percent of voters supported the ballot question allowing a licensed physician to prescribe life-ending medication at a terminally ill patient’s request. Twenty-nine percent said they opposed the measure, and 11 percent said they did not know or did not provide an answer to pollsters.

The PPP poll indicated a tighter race, with 45 percent saying they support the measure and 36 percent in opposition.

The opposition is spread out among several groups, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, the right-leaning Massachusetts Family Institute and the Archdiocese of Boston, which has seen its influence nosedive on Beacon Hill and in the pews after the priest sex abuse scandals.

Advocates and opponents are also split on how to label the proposal, known as “Question 2”: It’s “death with dignity,” according to proponents, and “doctor-prescribed suicide” to opponents.

Supporters say the initiative, if approved, would empower patients who are suffering. Two doctors would have to certify that the person seeking life-ending medication has less than six months to live, they add. “What this law does is give greater dignity and control to people who are dealing with the pain and suffering of their final days,” said Question 2 spokesman Steve Crawford.

Robin Loughman, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide, in a statement last month called the ballot question “badly written” and “poor public policy.”

Organizers behind the questions had to gather signatures in order to secure their slots on the ballot. Organizers picked up additional signatures after lawmakers passed on weighing in on the two issues at the State House earlier this year.

Even so, legislators have the ability to repeal ballot questions, though political observers say that is unlikely if medical marijuana and the life-ending medicine campaigns are successful.

The one exception would be the auto repair question: Since Gov. Patrick signed a compromise, lawmakers would likely take steps to repeal it if the ballot question became law.

Rep. Walsh said he was undecided on the life-ending medicine ballot question. “It’s a hard one because I can see both sides of the issue,” he said. State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, a fellow Dorchester Democrat, said she is also undecided on the ballot question, along with the medical marijuana initiative.

Another member of the Dorchester delegation, Rep. Carlos Henriquez, said he was opposed to Question 2, while he was “still kind of torn about” medical marijuana. Rep. Russell Holmes said he was leaning against Question 2, describing himself as “morally not in agreement with suicide.” He is leaning towards a yes vote on medical marijuana.
“I’m there because we already essentially have marijuana being used in the commonwealth,” he said.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.