Patient Advocates Seek Changes to Draft Regulations for Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Law

April 22, 2013 | Kris Hermes
Patient advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) filed recommended amendments today to draft regulations which were issued last month by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) in order to implement Question 3, the state’s new medical marijuana law. The amendments were filed in advance of a scheduled hearing by the Public Health Council that took place today in Boston.

The draft regulations are the product of many weeks of deliberation, during which time DPH sought input from medical marijuana patients and other stakeholders, including ASA, the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance (MPAA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Seeking a broad range of feedback, DPH held public hearings earlier this month in Boston, Plymouth, and Florence.

In November, sixty-three percent of voters approved Question 3, making Massachusetts the 18th medical marijuana state. Question 3 establishes a framework that allows qualifying patients with serious illnesses to get a recommendation from their licensed physician for the use of marijuana, and further enables patients to obtain their medicine from a registered Medical Marijuana Treatment Center (MMTC). Overseen by DPH, the MMTCs will be licensed to cultivate, process, and sell medical marijuana to qualifying patients who are allowed to obtain up to 10 ounces in a 60 day period. Patients who qualify under a hardship provision will be able to cultivate for themselves if unable to access a MMTC due to distance, disability, or low income.

And, while patient advocates are generally pleased with the draft regulations and the progress made by DPH, there remain concerns over a few provisions that could limit patients’ access to medical marijuana. For example, the regulations require physicians to register with DPH and undergo mandatory training before being authorized to recommend marijuana to their patients. Patients are concerned that this requirement will chill physician participation in the program and make it more difficult for patients to obtain a recommendation.

Dr. Karen Munkacy, an anesthesiologist and delegate to the Massachusetts Medical Society, as well as a board member of ASA, testified at today’s hearing. While Dr. Munkacy agreed that educating doctors about medical marijuana would be helpful, she said in a previous statement that, "I have concerns about any regulation that would create additional obstacles for physicians who want to incorporate this medicine into their practice.”

The draft regulations also prohibit patients from obtaining their medication from more than one MMTC, and place unique and onerous restrictions on minors who might benefit from medical marijuana. Advocates argue that these types of restrictions create unnecessary barriers to treatment. Dr. Munkacy testified today that:

If we limit this medicine only to dying children, then it is not legally available for the 80 percent of children who live longer than six months after their cancer diagnosis.  Childhood cancer is rare, but distraught parents, who are already dealing the nightmare of their child having cancer, shouldn’t also have the nightmare of buying their children’s medicine from back alley drug dealers.

Although Massachusetts law allows certain qualifying patients to cultivate their own medical marijuana, advocates argue that the draft regulations unduly limit such activity. For example, patients that can show their income, disability, or lack of mobility is an impediment to obtaining their medicine from an MMTC, they may be able to cultivate it themselves or find a caregiver to grow it for them. However, the financial hardship threshold, as it stands, only includes the poorest of the poor and excludes patients who still have a legitimate economic barrier to purchasing their medicine from an MMTC. Also, the lack of an appeals process for patients seeking hardship qualification denies them due process rights that are part of other social services programs.

After the final draft regulations have been completed, DPH will present them again to the PHC on May 8th and, if adopted, they will go into effect on May 24th.
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