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Death with Dignity, medical marijuana on state ballot

Published: Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 07:11

At the polls today, voters will not simply be voting Obama versus Romney. Referenda on ballots across the country allow voters to weigh in on the decisions of state and local governments, representing perhaps the purest form of direct democracy that exists in modern American politics.

Several propositions appear today on the Massachusetts election ballot. From legalizing medical marijuana to physician−assisted suicide, registered voters — not elected officials — will determine if these initiatives become laws.

“[Voting on ballot initiatives] is not as black and white, red and blue partisanship as your traditional candidate selection,” co−President of Tufts Republicans Bennett Gillogly, a junior, said. “It is an opportunity to distance yourself from being a Republican or Democrat, to what you as a person believe.”

Question 1 comes with a bit of a caveat, as the state legislature already passed a so−called “Right to Repair” bill on July 31, but it was too late to delete it from the ballot.

Because the “Right to Repair” law, which requires automakers to release diagnostic repair information, is already on the books, voters who support the law have the option of voting “yes” or skipping the question.

Voters’ choices on questions 2 and 3, however, will have a more immediate impact on Massachusetts law.

Question 2 asks voters whether physicians should be able to prescribe fatal medicine if requested by terminally ill patients with six months or less to live.

To determine life expectancy, and whether the patient is mentally capable of making such a decision, two doctors must be involved. Both individual doctors and hospitals, however, can exempt themselves from the program.

“People should have a right to decide on their own lives,” Associate Professor Emeritus of Biology Ross Feldberg, who previously taught Contemporary Biosocial Problems in America, said. “There are enough safeguards that we wouldn’t have it being abused by people who want to hasten others’ death.”

Feldberg’s course included an examination of physician−assisted suicide’s ethical and legal implications

Modeled after versions already enacted in Oregon and Washington, the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act would establish a process for patient suicide that doctors could regulate.

In Oregon, for example, 40 to 50 people each year have used this process to end their lives since the ballot initiative passed in 1994, according to Feldberg.

Without the option of euthanasia, terminally ill patients can choose to refuse treatment or their families may take them off life support, neither of which guarantee less pain and suffering, Feldberg said.

Students discussed this issue, as well as Question 3, in an Oct. 24 Institute for Political Citizenship (IPC) meeting titled “Death & Drugs.”

Although most attendees were in favor of this form of physician−assisted suicide, some questioned the initiative’s rhetoric regarding what it means to be “mentally capable” and the accuracy with which doctors estimate “six months to live.”

Question 3 proposes the elimination of state criminal and civil penalties for the use of medical marijuana by patients with chronic or debilitating medical conditions.

Unlike California’s 1996 medical marijuana ballot initiative — often criticized for its lenient application — this ballot issue calls for relatively tighter regulation, according to Director of Government Relations for advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project Steve Fox (LA ’90).

“We’ve learned from [California’s law], and we now draft initiatives so only those who need [medical marijuana] can get it,” Fox said. “Some people may not be ready for it to be legal for all adults, but there are some seriously ill patients who could really benefit from it and it’s really unfair to subject those people to arrest.”

Four years ago, the Massachusetts electorate voted to decriminalize non−medical marijuana in the same process by which its medical counterpart could be legalized today.

During the talk hosted by IPC, students discussed the potential for the Massachusetts ballot to feature a question about legalizing all uses of marijuana in 2016.

“I think legalization is inevitable,” TCU Senator Joe Thibodeau, a junior, said. “But legalizing medical marijuana makes [all−encompassing marijuana legalization] more of a surefire [thing].”

Some students who support Question 3 did, though, express concern about the power of the federal government in seizing the substance as well as the ambiguity of some of the proposition’s language.

“If [the state] is able to be a leader in implementing it and avoiding the negative externalities, it can be an example in how to implement both of these policies for states nationwide,” head of Tufts Votes Jacob Wessel, a junior, said.

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