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Mary Jane Is Coming to New England. Maybe!

March 27, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

To short-circuit ballot initiatives, state legislatures are looking at passing bills to legalize recreational marijuana. According to one recent headline, “The legislative season is in full swing at statehouses around the country, and pot is hot.”  

Recent opinion polls, including Gallup, Pew, and the General Social Survey have reported that a majority of Americans nationwide favor legalization. All of the surveys show a significant increase in legalization support; and, it is likely that this trend will continue upward.

Bills to legalize marijuana for recreational use have been (or will be filed) in at least 15 states since the beginning of the year. And, there is a good chance that five New England states—Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont—will be the first out of the starting gate. These five states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot and have passed medical marijuana laws.  It also is likely that if legislation is not passed, marijuana legalization will become a ballot initiative in 2016.

Proposed Massachusetts Legislation

To avoid an expected 2016 ballot initiative, 15 members of the Massachusetts legislature introduced House Bill 1561 that would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults and establish a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. 

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported (“Legislators Want Say Over Legal Marijuana) that, “lawmakers are balking at the prospect of activists unilaterally writing a law that would have such a profound effect on the state. The legislators would rather write the proposed law themselves, allow for lots of public input, and have final say on the scope and details.”

The Globe article also quoted Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, “I think it’s better, if we’re going to do this, to do it in the Legislature than on the ballot,” and “I believe if the Legislature doesn’t act on it, it will be done on the ballot.” 

However, the considerable opposition from top officials could ruin prospects of a legislative solution. According to the Globe, “Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston all oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use.” In an interview shortly after winning the election when asked about recreational marijuana legalization, Governor-Elect Baker said, “I’m going to oppose that and I’m going to oppose that vigorously. There’s a ton of research out there at this point that says, especially for young people, it’s just plain bad.”

It’s likely that an intense debate will continue into 2016.

Senate Bill Would End Federal Prohibition on Medical Marijuana

A bill recently introduced by three U.S. senators (Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky) would end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana.

Passage of The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, includes the following:

  • Allow states to set medical marijuana policies. Individuals and businesses participating in state medical marijuana programs will no longer be in violation of federal law.
  • Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule I drug, meaning it does not currently have accepted medical use in the United States. The act moves it to Schedule II, recognizing that marijuana has a legitimate medical purpose.
  • Physicians in Department of Veterans Affairs facilities are prohibited from prescribing medical marijuana. The act would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans.
  • Currently, medical marijuana business is a cash business. The act will provide a safe harbor to financial institutions that provide services to marijuana-related businesses in accordance with state law.
  • The act will remove unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for researchers to gain government approval to undertake research on marijuana.

The bill’s fate in the Senate is unclear.

Legislators and Voters Should Not Forget Our Teens

According to research from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, teens who are heavy marijuana users may be at risk for memory problems in early adulthood. The study found that teens who were chronic marijuana users during adolescence had an abnormally shaped hippocampus; and, the longer the heavy use the more abnormal its shape. The hippocampus is a structure in the brain that is important to short- and long-term memory.

Most of the 97 young adults who participated in the study had used marijuana daily since the age of 16 or 17 and had smoked it for about three years. All of them had stopped smoking marijuana at least two years before the study started and were in their early 20s. None of them had used any other drug except marijuana.

To evaluate the brain function of the participating individuals, the research team used computer programs, MRI studies, and memory tests. The main finding of the study is that people in their early 20s who had smoked marijuana heavily as teens performed 18 percent worse on memory tests than adults of the same age who had never abused marijuana.

According to one of the Northwestern researchers, ”The memory processes that appear to be affected by cannabis are ones that we use every day to solve common problems and to sustain our relationships with friends and family.”

There is a good chance that Massachusetts will be one of the next states to legalize recreational marijuana, either through the legislative process or at the behest of voters. It’s important to make sure that the regulations guarantee that our teens and younger children will be safe.

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