Cambridge last night became the first city in the nation to attempt to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The City Council voted, 7 to 1, in support of a home rule petition that would authorize Cambridge physicians to prescribe the illegal drug.
The vote came after almost two hours of debate and testimony from doctors, activists and medicinal marijuana smokers. With this petition, the council asks the state legislature to authorize Cambridge to take advantage of a now-defunct Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program which has allowed patients to smoke cannabis under heavy supervision.
"What we are making here, then, is a powerful political, legal statement," Councillor Edward N. Cyr said in favor of the act. Cyr and others who testified acknowledged, however, that this move is not likely to have a practical effect on state or federal law.
"What it is is a clear message to the state legislature that they need to get moved off the dime," Cyr said.
Massachusetts is one of 16 states which bans marijuana under all circumstances, including medicinal and experimental needs. For 19 years, the state legislature has pigeonholed a law that would give Massachusetts residents access to cannabis for medical use, according to Harvard's Associate Professor of Psychology Lester Grinspoon, who spoke at last night's meeting.
"The people who are opposed to cannabis as a medicine say, 'Well, there are other things that work just as well.' But there are substantial numbers of people for whom they do not work," Grinspoon told the council. "It's a crime not to make it available for those people to use."
Marijuana is useful in treating multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, AIDS, herpes and the side effects associated with chemotherapy, Grinspoon said. However, the FDA currently classifies the drug as a Schedule I drug, which means it can only be used in government experiments, and cannot be prescribed by doctors. Heroin and LSD are also Schedule I drugs.
An experimental FDA program, which has recently been phased out, made cannabis available to individuals in some states for medical purposes, under very tight supervision.
Grinspoon said that although the city home rule petition will not make marijuana accessible to Cambridge citizens who need it, "it would...have great symbolic significance."
However, Councillor William H. Walsh, the only councillor to vote against the petition, said it could create "a nightmare for drug enforcement agents all across the state."
"What we would do here is we would be allowing people to come to Cambridge to get prescriptions of marijuana," Walsh said. "Your cause may be worthy, but the question here is really what is the power of the city of Cambridge." Councillor Walter J. Sullivan abstained from the vote.
Debbi S. Talshir of Bourne spoke in favor of the petition, saying she has been treating her multiple sclerosis for 10 years by smoking cannabis. "The marijuana I smoke...has enabled me to go on and do things I want to do," she told the council. "I think it's disgusting that people don't listen, because it's very sad. Marijuana helps a lot of people therapeutically.