It seems strange to say that politicians lack the courage to pass a bill that's favored by the vast majority of their constituents. But that's where Massachusetts stands on its long, strange trip to legalize distribution of medically prescribed marijuana.
Advocates have now given the state legislature a deadline. The Joint Committee on Public Health must take action by May 2, or a coalition will move forward to bring the issue to the public as a ballot initiative question this November.
The committee held a hearing earlier this month, but few expect any positive action.
That certainly seems to be the message from State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez of Jamaica Plain, co-chair of the Public Health Committee. "Voters are going to get their chance to vote on the issue in November," he told me.
Which means you'll soon see advocates fanning out across the state, gathering signatures to clear the final hurdle for putting the initiative on the ballot.
The version that people will vote on would allow nonprofit groups to establish small dispensaries — up to 35 in total across the state. Large-scale, commercial growers would not be allowed. A new felony would punish those caught defrauding the system to sell marijuana for non-medicinal purposes with up to five years in prison.
This process began last year, when the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, and its allies at the Massachusetts ACLU and elsewhere, decided to start the ballot-initiative process. They would prefer the law come via the normal legislative process, but the initiative process was a back-up strategy.
It was also intended as a cattle prod. Often — most notably with the state's health-care reform of 2006 — the threat of a people's law forces lawmakers to pass their own, less extreme version first. The threat of success through initiative is legitimate: polling suggests more than 80 percent approval of medical marijuana, and the 2008 initiative decriminalizing small amounts of pot passed easily.
But in this case, some advocates think the threat may have had the opposite effect: legislators can wash their hands of the issue, knowing that it will probably become law without their fingerprints.
In March, the Public Health Committee sent a version of the bill, sponsored by State Representative Frank Smizik and State Senator Stanley Rosenberg, for "study." That's the procedural equivalent of the 10-foot pole with which lawmakers don't wish to touch it. The initiative version, which was the subject of the April 10 hearing, seems destined for the same fate.
For whatever reasons, Beacon Hill politicians just can't seem to bring themselves to stand up for medical marijuana, no matter how popular it is, and how many other states (16) have already done it.
Not Sanchez, whose Jamaica Plain district is overwhelmingly in favor of the bill. Not even Governor Deval Patrick, who no longer faces election worries. Asked about the bill on WBZ-AM 1030 this past week, Patrick declined to express an opinion, but cited strong law-enforcement opposition.
Patrick's lack of support is probably the final straw. Lawmakers aren't going to take an uncomfortable vote that might get vetoed anyway.
Looks like the people will need to do it themselves.
WATCHING FOR THE FEDS
There are those — including Sanchez — who think advocates want the legislature to act simply to spare the expense of gathering signatures and promoting the ballot measure.