When Finding Relief Means Breaking The Law

March 26, 2003

Timothy B. Wheeler, Baltimore Sun ,

Erin Hildebrandt hasn't had to break the law lately, but she worries that she may be forced to again, for the sake of her health and her family. The 32-year-old Smithsburg woman has Crohn's disease, a chronic and debilitating inflammation of the intestines. It's in remission now. But, not so long ago, her life consisted of shuttling between bedroom, bathroom and doctor's offices, seeking relief from repeated bouts of diarrhea, abdominal pain and nausea. At times, she said, "I wasn't able to get out of bed." She tried 30 different medications. One made her muscles spasm, another left her heaving for hours. Nothing seemed to work until she heard that some Crohn's sufferers had been helped by smoking marijuana. The illegal drug quelled her agony, she said. It gave her back to her five young children, freeing her to bake cookies and spend time with the youngsters that her illness had denied. It was with people such as Hildebrandt in mind that the Maryland Senate passed a bill yesterday that would reduce the criminal penalties for marijuana possession if the defendant can demonstrate he or she needs it for medical purposes. The House has approved identical legislation, which was opposed by state and federal law enforcement agencies in one of the General Assembly's most passionate debates this year. Hildebrandt welcomed news of the bill's passage but said it doesn't go far enough. Though the legislation would reduce the maximum penalty to a $100 fine, she could be arrested and convicted of a crime for using what she says is the only remedy she has found for the extreme discomforts of her disease. "That's something I had to fear in those early morning hours - armed men breaking into my house and taking me away from my kids," she said. Hildebrandt testified in Annapolis in favor of the medical marijuana bill, but because possession is still a criminal offense here, she won't say when she last used it or where she got it. "I didn't go down to the 7-Eleven," she quipped. Her only brush with the law, she said, was the speeding ticket she got rushing to her wedding rehearsal dinner. Because of the stigma attached to marijuana use, she said, she was afraid to tell her doctor when she began using it in Michigan, where she grew up and lived until four years ago. "I was afraid I would be denied medical treatment," she said. Hildebrandt said she first tried marijuana for another malady she has had since childhood - migraine headaches. Doctors seemed unable to find a cause or an effective pain reliever, she said. "I went through CAT scans, the whole nine yards," she said, until a friend told her marijuana could help. "Some of the worst things in the world are head pain and nausea," she explained, "because they are so debilitating. A broken leg, you can work through the pain, but when you're throwing up all the time ..." She has been able to control her Crohn's partly by watching her diet, Hildebrandt said, but she lately has begun to discuss her marijuana use with her doctors. She said it's just "common sense" to notify them. "I look at all the dangerous drugs given to me by doctors that had me in horrible agony," she said, including prescription narcotics. "Here it is, this safe, herbal remedy that works for me without these side effects." Marijuana does not give relief to everyone with intractable nausea, said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-sponsored the bill in the House. But Morhaim, an emergency-room physician, said he has seen "lots of patients" over the years "for whom regular medical care has pretty much run its course - we've tried everything in the toolbox, and nothing is working." "If you can give people some relief, then you need to be able to do that," he said. Mindful of the message she sends her children, who range in age from 1 to 8, Hildebrandt said she has treated marijuana like any other medicine, keeping it locked away with the other prescription drugs. "I try to explain to my kids that medicines come in different forms: pills, liquids and herbs. This particular medicine is illegal, and they can put people in jail for having it," she said. But when her 8-year-old son Danny asked her why people get put in jail for using a drug that helps them, Hildebrandt said, "I can't explain that."

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