Bill To Legalize Marijuana Gets Marblehead Boost
Marblehead =AD If the Massachusetts Legislature ultimately decides not to make the state a nationwide leader in legalizing marijuana, it won’t be due to a lack of support from Marblehead.
On March 6, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, proposed more than a year ago and co-sponsored by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, got a lengthy hearing before the Judiciary Committee, which raged into the evening.
There for all of the testimony and supplying some of his own was another Marblehead resident, Kevin McKernan, an accomplished scientist and founder of Medicinal Genomics, who last summer announced he had sequenced the genome of two strains of cannabis, a first step in perhaps unlocking a wealth of knowledge that may one day improve treatment and perhaps even cure a number of diseases.
Research has been slowed, McKernan noted, while scientists like him wait for licenses from the DEA to possess the drug for the purposes of studying it. McKernan used a lab in Amsterdam, where marijuana is legal, to assist in his sequencing project.
The current bill ( H 1371 ) creates industry licensing, regulation and taxation standards, and establishes a Cannabis Control Authority comprising seven members with an initial appropriation of $ 2.5 million. It leaves in place penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana.
The bill’s preamble states that the legislation acknowledges that =93100 years of criminalization in Massachusetts has failed to stop the production, distribution and use of marijuana, and that sustained enforcement efforts cannot reasonably be expected to accomplish that goal.=94
It states that the bill seeks to =93eliminate prohibition-related crime and to raise new tax revenue=94 while =93promoting new jobs and industries in commercial cannabis and hemp=94 and =93respecting the personal autonomy of adults, where freedom supposes responsibility.=94
Ehrlich explained that during the last legislative session, the bill had been debated in front of the Revenue Committee, of which she is a member, due to the potential tax revenue it would create.
As someone who really enjoys listening to both sides of an argument, I was open to listening and found myself compelled by the arguments made in favor of the bill by doctors, medical experts, lawyers and even law enforcement,=94 she explained.
She added that voters in her district have twice expressed a preference to loosen marijuana laws. Back in 2008, Marblehead overwhelmingly supported the decriminalization of possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, approving the ballot question by a margin of more than two to one. Two years later, voters in Ehrlich’s district were asked in an advisory question whether their state representative should =93be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would allow the state to regulate the taxation, cultivation and sale of marijuana to adults.=94 Again, a strong majority, 56 percent, said =93yes,=94 to 44 percent =93no.=94
Learning about McKernan’s work only deepened her support, she said.
There are legitimate historical parallels to Prohibition, and we all know how that turned out,=94 she said. =93The revenue upside combined with the benefit of bringing an illicit business out of the shadows will have great benefits that extend beyond medicinal benefit. With all of the biotech industry in Massachusetts, there are research and business opportunities as well.=94
As the March 6 hearing approached, the Massachusetts Family Institute sounded a familiar refrain in signaling its opposition to the bill in an email.
Marijuana is a mind-altering drug that is almost always the gateway to other drug abuse,=94 the institute wrote in its email. =93Legalization WILL lead to its proliferation, especially to minors, and WILL lead to more impaired drivers on the roads.=94
McKernan’s keen scientific mind =AD as a fresh Emory University graduate, he led an MIT team working on the Human Genome Project in the mid-1990s, and his previous businesses, Agencourt and Agencourt Personal Genomics, based in Beverly’s Cummings Center, each reportedly sold for in excess of $ 100 million =AD bristles at the =93gateway=94 theory in particular, on several fronts. Part of it is the =93lack of scientific rigor=94 behind the faulty premise that there is a causal connection between marijuana use and subsequent use of harder drugs.
If you believe that logic, outlaw milk, as it’s a gateway to alcohol,=94 he wrote in a comment on the Reporter’s website.
Where there is a causal connection, he suggested, is the contribution marijuana prohibition has had in leading people to become hooked on prescription drugs, which, while easier to obtain, are far more toxic and addictive.
In fact, noted McKernan, cannabis is coming into favor as a tool to get people off of heroin, as it is less toxic and less addictive than methadone.
And, while McKernan’s background leads him to be particularly receptive to the science-based arguments to legalize marijuana, he is mindful of the social arguments as well, including the economic cost of the war on drugs. He noted that the U.S. locks up a far greater percentage of its citizens than the rest of the world, with nonviolent offenders =AD and those convicted of marijuana possession, in particular =AD representing a significant portion of the prison population.
But McKernan’s passion on the issue is also fueled by his conclusion that much suffering could be alleviated, if only researchers had greater access to cannabis. He noted that dozens of cannabinoids =AD many of them non-psychoactive, unlike the commonly known THC =AD have shown signs of being able to shrink nine different types of tumors, including glioblastoma, an aggressive type of malignant brain tumor, which have proven difficult to treat, at best, with chemotherapy. He likened chemotherapy to threading a needle: giving the patient a sufficiently high dose to attack the tumor but not so much that it becomes lethal. Cannabis, by contrast, has a far greater =93therapeutic index,=94 or ratio of the lethal dose to the effective dose for treatment.
McKernan said that the science that informed the original =93war on drugs=94 =AD for example, the myth that marijuana use kills brain cells =AD is =93grossly out of date.=94 He noted that the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians have petitioned for the DEA to reschedule cannabis.
While McKernan has been following with interest political developments related to cannabis legalization across the country and on the federal level, the March 6 hearing was McKernan’s first personal experience with the legislative process, which he called =93educational.=94 While realistic about the fate of the Massachusetts Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, McKernan explained that he does draw some hope from history. The end of the prohibition of alcohol, he noted, came not from federal decree but from the states
The Judiciary Committee has until early next week to make a recommendation on the bill before the biennial bill-reporting deadline. Other sponsors of the bill include Reps. Ellen Story, D-Amherst; Ruth Balser, D-Newton; and Ann Gobi, D-Spencer.
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