Prosecutors: Low profile so far in medical marijuana debate

Law enforcement officials who campaigned in 2008 against a ballot question to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana have so far offered a more nuanced perspective on Question 3 on this year's ballot, which would legalize medical marijuana.

"I don't intend, right now, to do any campaigning on this issue. I've let people know where I stand," said Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

Early said he personally opposes the initiative because it's too broad and could allow marijuana prescriptions for too many ailments. "I see the headaches that California had . . . You want to make sure you get this right and you have to learn from other people's mistakes," he said.

But Early said he also sees some merit in a more narrowly drawn proposal. "My take is this: I have compassion and no problem helping someone who is dying from a cancer that could benefit by helping them keep food down through the use of medical marijuana," he said. "I've also had friends who've died from cancer who may have benefited from medical marijuana but did not try marijuana because it is illegal to do so."

In the run-up to the November 2008 election, Attorney General Martha Coakley stood flanked by local officials and law enforcement in Somerville and warned of dire consequences if Question 2 passed, decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Proponents of decriminalizing possession of the drug won by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, with a final tally of 1.9 million in favor and 1 million against. The change in law made possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine for offenders age 18 and older.

"We are convinced that having easier access to use marijuana is not the correct message to send to our young people," Coakley said in a 2008 video taken by city cable. This past April Coakley said implementing a new medical marijuana law while avoiding abuse would be a "huge headache," but through a spokesperson Coakley this week declined to stake out a position on this November's marijuana ballot question.

In response to a News Service question, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone, who had campaigned against the decriminalization proposal, said he has concerns but is receptive to the general concept of allowing patients to legally use medical marijuana.

"I remain open to considering the legal use of medical marijuana, if there is clear and convincing evidence to a reasonable degree of medical and scientific certainty that the medical benefits of marijuana cannot be obtained in any other way or form, and provided that proper regulatory measures are in place to ensure that there is systemic accountability that prevents abuse in distributing, obtaining and using medical marijuana" said Leone in a statement.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who opposed the 2008 decriminalization question, has so far declined to take sides in the 2012 question of legalizing medical marijuana.

"I really have to defer to the medical views about this and individuals will get a chance to vote on this," Patrick said on WBZ in April. He said, "I haven't been paying much attention to it."

A spokesperson for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley referred questions to the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, which had opposed the 2008 question but has not taken a stand on the 2012 medical marijuana question, which will be settled by voters statewide in November.

"The District Attorneys have not taken an official position on medical marijuana at this time and do not have a position paper," wrote MDAA Executive Director Geline Williams in an email to the News Service. Williams said district attorneys met with the proponents of the ballot question in January and at that time expressed "numerous concerns" with the proposal.

By this time in 2008, the MDAA announced on its website that it was "unanimously opposed" to the decriminalization question, which it said was "funded primarily by billionaire George Soros," according to an archived web page.

The 2008 campaign featured recriminations between the two sides, including allegations from the pro-decriminalization campaign that opponents had violated campaign finance laws by fundraising before forming a political action committee.

So far, the debate over whether to legalize medical marijuana appears to be less adversarial than in 2008. If it passes, Question 3 would legalize medical marijuana for people with "debilitating conditions," and allow state-licensed nonprofits to grow and distribute medical marijuana, according to the Secretary of State's summary.

In April, the Massachusetts Medical Society affirmed its opposition to the recreational use of marijuana and said it would be important to conduct clinical trials on medical marijuana, which the society said have not yet been done.


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