Marijuana, assisted suicide questions on Massachusetts ballot

Friday October 12, 2012

Berkshire County voters will weigh in Nov. 6 on whether to legalize physician-assisted suicide and allow the sale of marijuana for medical purposes in Massachusetts.

Two binding statewide ballot questions, listed as Questions 2 and 3, are gaining strong support, according to several statewide polls.

If Question 2 passes, Massa chusetts would become only the third state to allow some terminally ill patients to obtain prescriptions for drugs that would end their lives.

Opposition groups led by the Committee Against Physician As sisted Suicide are mounting a challenge, claiming that the proposal is vaguely written, lacks safeguards and ignores improvements in hospice care.

Associations of physicians and nurses are among the opponents. But recent polls by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe indicate 60 percent support, and a recent voter survey by the University of Massachusetts found 65 percent in favor.

If the question is approved, it would become law in January, subject to ratification by the Legislature, according to 4th Berkshire District state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

Physicians could write a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates to an adult patient diagnosed with less than six months to live because of a terminal illness.

"I have yet to meet a physician who can do that with any accuracy," said Rosanne Meade, leader of the Committee Against Physician Assist ed Suicide. The former teacher and union leader argues that terminally ill patients may not have been informed about pain-relieving (palliative) care and hospice services.

She also contended that counseling is not required, adding that she believes 50 to 70 percent of patients with a terminal diagnosis become clinically depressed.

According to supporters, the measure would give terminally ill patients dignity and control over their deaths and would end suffering.

Only Oregon and Washington state have adopted such laws; 71 Oregonians chose to end their lives last year, while in Washington, 241 assisted suicides were reported over the past three years. In both states, additional patients requested the prescriptions, but did not take the life-ending drug.

In New England, Maine voters narrowly defeated a comparable proposal in 2000. This year, lawmakers in Vermont rejected a physician-assisted suicide initiative.

"We’re dealing with a very complicated life-and-death issue," said Meade. "When you deal with it as a ballot question, you just ship it off to a bumper sticker."

Gov. Deval Patrick has indicated he’s leaning in favor of the end-of-life ballot question, telling a Boston radio talk show that his mother’s suffering during her final months battling cancer and hepatitis has influenced him.

But on Question 3, legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, Patrick said he’s skeptical, citing "mixed results" from a similar law in California. However, he voiced sympathy for patients in chronic pain who could benefit from marijuana.

The Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative, as it’s known, is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and several statewide advocacy groups.

During a hearing at the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, Eric McCoy of Boston, testified: "I’m almost 60 years old and the only reason I’m able to function every day is because of marijuana. I would be lying flat on a bed otherwise because of muscle spasms."

But, in opposition, the executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, Wayne Sampson, declared, "We’re very concerned that it is so loosely written, relative to who can obtain it and for what reasons."

The Massachusetts Medical Soci ety, representing 24,000 doctors, also opposes legalizing medicinal marijuana without scientific proof that it would be safe and effective on patients.

According to state Attorney General Martha Coakley, "If this passes, it’s going to cause a huge headache making sure it’s not abused." But she added that her office remains neutral on the question.

Although Question 1 will appear on the ballot, supporters and opponents of a measure requiring auto manufacturers to make repair information available to independent repair shops, not just to their dealerships, are urging a "no" vote because state lawmakers have already forged a compromise on the issue.

To reach Clarence Fanto:,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.


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