Massachusetts Medical Society: Coalition Unites Against Recreational Marijuana

Coalition Unites Against Recreational Marijuana

By Vicki Ritterband
Vital Signs Contributing Writer

Bob Doyle, chair of Better Way Colorado, a nonprofit coalition opposed to marijuana legalization and commercialization, observes what’s happening in Massachusetts and, for him, it’s déjà vu. In November, residents will decide whether recreational marijuana should be legalized here, a question Colorado voters answered a resounding “yes” to four years ago.

“The arguments the pro-marijuana proponents are making in Massachusetts are a repeat of those we heard in Colorado,” Doyle said. “They claim this is about rights and social justice but it’s not. It’s about the mass commercialization of marijuana — marijuana soda, vaping devices, gummy drops, cupcakes, and the high potency extracts.”

If Question 4, “Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana,” passes on November 8, Massachusetts residents 21 and older could possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. Buyers would pay a 3.75 percent excise tax on top of the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. Retail sales could begin in January 2018 and marijuana would be sold in many forms, including foods and drinks.

Doyle said that there are several big differences between his state’s anti-legalization campaign four years ago and Massachusetts’ today, beginning with the fact that Colorado was unable to launch a state-wide grass roots campaign. By contrast, here, opponents to the measure have marshaled a diverse coalition of stakeholders under the umbrella of the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts ( Members include the MMS, the Massachusetts Hospital Association(MHA), the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), and public officials such as Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey.

“The medical voice is very influential with voters,” Doyle said, “because it’s a critical public health and safety issue.”

Medical Society’s Efforts

For nearly two decades, the MMS has had a formal policy opposing the legalization of recreational marijuana. Recently, in the face of the ballot initiative, its leadership has reiterated its opposition — for reasons that range from the drug’s addictive nature to its adverse effects on developing brains to the appeal of edibles — specifically those packaged to look like candy or other sweet treats — to youngsters. MMS President James Gessner, M.D., said it’s the Society’s number one issue this fall.

The MMS has developed and distributed brochures for physicians’ offices that outline its arguments against legalization, and is writing and speaking out about the issue in various venues. Additionally, the MMS has a page on its website dedicated to Question 4. “The campaign will be short and intense,” Dr. Gessner said, “and an important part of it will be encouraging our physicians to talk to their patients about the health implications of legalization.”

Health and Safety Arguments

The MMS is joined in opposition to the ballot question by other health care stakeholders, including the MHA, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Association for Behavioral Healthcare. Like the Medical Society, NAMI is particularly concerned about the effects of marijuana on developing brains. “The research shows that marijuana poses a risk for the young brain — those 25 and under — that is predisposed to emotional and mental health issues,” said NAMI Mass Executive Director Laurie Martinelli. Marijuana also could interfere with medication adherence. Furthermore, because mental illness and substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand, it’s likely the incidence of dual diagnoses will increase once marijuana is legalized, according to Martinelli.

The MHA is opposing the ballot question for many reasons, but they fall into several categories, according to President and CEO Lynn Nicholas: the health and safety effects of regular use, the capacity of hospitals and particularly emergency departments to handle an uptick in drug-related health problems and emergencies, and the financial implications for a health care system that is struggling to keep costs down.

“Also, we don’t have adequate substance use facilities in the state now for those who are addicted to alcohol and opioids, ” Nicholas said. “You add this and it’s like breaking the camel’s back.” She added that the MHA is concerned about the effect of legalization on health care workers. “If this becomes more available, how do you ensure that health care workers are not coming to work under the influence? It’s hard to monitor marijuana use.”

More Coalition Voices

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), the largest employer association in the state and another member of the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, shares the MHA’s workforce concerns. “Many of our members are employers in safety-sensitive areas like manufacturing and transportation and they do drug testing,” explained AIM President and CEO Rick Lord. “Even if you’re using legally in your home, you won’t pass the drug test. So what will be the implications for companies that are struggling to hire workers?” AIM also opposes the initiative because some companies may lose their favorable workers’ compensation insurance rates because they will no longer be drug-free workplaces, according to Lord.

The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has come out strongly against marijuana legalization. Spokesman John Carmichael, the police chief in Walpole, said his group believes that if Question 4 passes, the state will see an increase in impaired driving and motor vehicle accidents. He pointed out, most police officers do not have the training to accurately assess impairment. And if drivers are suspected of operating while under the influence of marijuana, they can refuse to submit to drug screening without consequence. That’s not true with alcohol, where refusing a breathalyzer will result in a 180-day license suspension.

“If you look at Colorado, 77 percent of their OUIs [in the first half of 2014] involved drivers who used marijuana, and fatal crashes have gone up,” Carmichael said. “If we do legalize marijuana, we’re going to have to train over a million officers in field sobriety tests for marijuana.”

Carmichael believes the argument that legalizing marijuana will free up the police to go after “real” crime is a “ridiculous” one. “If someone is arrested because they have drugs on them, it’s very rarely because of just the drugs. Usually the drug arrest is incidental to something else — drunk driving, a revoked license, or a probation violation,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the MASS also has numerous concerns about marijuana legalization. “We already have our hands full, trying to work with our kids and communities around alcohol issues,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the MASS.

Coalition of Opponents

Corey Welford, spokesperson for the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, said while he expects that the pro-ballot question activists will receive a substantial influx of marijuana industry money to support their efforts, they are at a disadvantage for one critical reason: “They can’t match us in terms of the breadth of our coalition.” Welford, who is attorney general Maura Healey’s former chief of staff, added, “We are a grassroots network and we will be opposing this in communities in every part of the state.”

The Campaign will be participating in debates, community events, and press conferences and doing as much media outreach as possible, including writing op-eds and letters to the editor as well as requesting editorial board meetings. Opponents are optimistic about their chances of defeating the initiative. “Our strongest strategy is to get as much information as we can in front of the widest audience possible,” Welford said. “The more people learn about the implications of the ballot question, the more concerns they will have.”

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