Wide range of concerns voiced at Mass. hearing on medical marijuana

An Iraqi Army veteran from Newton worries that medical marijuana will not be legally available in Massachusetts for vets seeking treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.

The chairman of a Weymouth substance abuse treatment program is concerned that regulators will be too lenient when crafting new rules, creating easy access for teens seeking pot for recreational use.

And family physicians fear losing their federally-issued licenses to prescribe pain medications if they recommend marijuana for patients, a practice not sanctioned by federal laws.

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They were among an audience of approximately 200, of which about 50 voiced their concerns and suggestions Thursday at Roxbury Community College in a three-hour “listening session” by state regulators to help them craft highly anticipated regulations guiding the medical use of marijuana.

Under a November ballot referendum that legalized medical marijuana, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is required to issue regulations by May 1, although officials recently said the complexity of the issue may take them a bit longer to complete the task.

Dave Morgan, a retired pharmacist who heads Weymouth’s Substance Abuse Prevention Team, urged regulators to consider not allowing edible marijuana, such as cookies or candies, which are permitted in some of the other 17 states that have legalized the medical use of marijuana.

“As a pharmacist, we don’t put Lipitor in cheeseburgers,” Morgan said. “Medicine is not smoked and is not compounded into food and candies. If you want it to be called medicine, treat it as medicine.”

Many of those who spoke offered opinions about how regulators should decide the medical conditions that would qualify a patient as so debilitated he or she needs medical marijuana.

The referendum listed nine specific conditions, but also stated that “other conditions” could be determined in writing by a patient’s physician—a stipulation that worries substance abuse prevention and other health specialists who say such vague language will result in marijuana being widely diverted for recreational use.

Scott Murphy, the 30-year-old Newton veteran who served in Iraq, said a friend of his, another vet, committed suicide last year after suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Murphy said he worries that veterans, who receive their health care from federal Veterans Affairs health centers, may not be able to get those physicians to certify patients for medical marijuana use, because the federal government prohibits such use.

Murphy said he struggles with chronic pain and degenerative arthritis in many of his joints, the aftermath of a motorcycle accident exacerbated by four years of strenuous Army service.

Smoking marijuana, he said, helps relieve his joint pain, when other medications have not worked.

“I have to buy it off the street now,” he said in an interview after testifying. “I am not guaranteed that [the quality] is safe.”

Interim state health commissioner Dr. Lauren Smith, who listened to nearly three hours of testimony, said regulators want to carefully write the rules to ensure there are no unintended consequences.

She said the testimony was helpful and in many cases moving. And she said the department was determined to strike the right balance between public safety and patient needs.

“Everyone’s story is appropriately poignant. That’s what happens when you have individual stories,” she said. “What we have to do as a department is to listen to the stories but continue to understand that we are responsible for the health and well-being of the six and a half million people of the Commonwealth ... and that’s what we are going to do.”