Lori Montgomery and Craig Whitlock,
The Maryland General Assembly has voted to dramatically reduce penalties for cancer patients and others who smoke marijuana to relieve suffering, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he is inclined to sign the measure. The bill, which passed the House of Delegates last week and won final approval in the Senate yesterday, would set a fine of $100 for using marijuana out of "medical necessity." Possession otherwise carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
If the bill becomes law, Maryland would become the first state to single out seriously ill marijuana users for relaxed sanctions, although some other states have done more to decriminalize medical marijuana. In recent years, eight states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. A medical marijuana initiative also won approval from District voters but has been blocked by Congress. In addition, 21 states, including Virginia, have approved largely symbolic laws or resolutions recognizing marijuana's medical value. White House drug policy chief John P. Walters lobbied against the Maryland measure and yesterday called on Ehrlich (R) to veto it. Walters, who has launched a campaign against efforts to relax state drug laws, said the General Assembly had been "fooled" by "drug legalizers" who are using the suffering of sick people to promote a pro-drug agenda that includes legalizing marijuana entirely. "Unfortunately, they have snuck up on people in Maryland and used them to help the wider effort," Walters said. Walters said he hopes "the governor will see through the con." The argument that marijuana is "a proven, efficacious medicine" makes no more sense than "an argument for medicinal crack," he said. Supporters of the legislation say marijuana offers relief from pain and nausea to people sickened by cancer, AIDS and other illnesses or by medical treatments such as chemotherapy. The Maryland bill is named for Darrell Putman, a former Army Green Beret and Howard County Farm Bureau director who advocated legalizing marijuana for the seriously ill. Putman died of cancer in 1999. "The Maryland legislature has shown the courage to defy the federal drug czar by reducing penalties for medical marijuana right in the back yard of a hostile White House," said Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington nonprofit group that promotes decriminalization. "Science, compassion and common sense -- not to mention 80 percent of the American people -- are on our side." Ehrlich, who co-sponsored a bill in Congress that would have freed states to make their own decisions on the issue, said he would review the measure. "But," he added, "I've been generally supportive of medical marijuana." The bill that passed the Senate yesterday by a vote of 29 to 17 is far different from the original legislation, which would have legalized marijuana for victims of cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or chronic medical conditions upon the advice of a physician. A House committee completely rewrote the measure to make "medical necessity" a defense against the prosecution of marijuana possession and to establish reduced penalties if a judge is persuaded by the argument. The new bill, which does not define "medical necessity," was passed by the House in a 73 to 62 vote. Emotions ran high during the floor debate in the Senate. Opponents called marijuana a "gateway drug" that leads to harder drugs and addiction. Supporters told of watching helplessly as relatives and friends died painful deaths and argued that marijuana could have eased their final days. Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) recalled how she had "closed the eyes" of several family members after caring for them in their dying moments. "There should be compassion and dignity when your life ends," she said. Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick), who was found to have cancer in 1989, told how he had seen "a lot of sick people" who suffered from intense pain and a lack of appetite, something he said marijuana could alleviate. He acknowledged concerns that the state was endorsing use of an illegal product. "You're right, it is a Catch-22," Brinkley said. "But it's a step in the right direction. These aren't the people we want to prosecute." Opponents questioned the medical benefits of marijuana, but mostly they warned that reducing the punishment for any drug would send the wrong message to Maryland children. Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the nation, according to federal officials. Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said that regardless of why someone uses marijuana, the end result is to enrich drug dealers. "Why should we funnel profits into a illegal industry?" he asked. "It's a guise to begin legalizing marijuana. That's what it's all about." Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel) asked whether the Senate was endorsing illegal behavior. "Where would these people acquire this marijuana?" he asked. Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery) replied: "It's up to them. I can't think of a legal source." Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's) said personal experience with someone who is terminally ill might change opponents' minds. He said that his daughter died a painful death from cancer, and that he wished marijuana had been available for her. "Only 25 years old, on her way to a very fruitful life, and we lost her," Exum said. "If we could have gotten her marijuana, we would have done that for her." © 2003 The Washington Post Company