Medical Marijuana on Maryland's Agenda

April 24, 2011

Marc Shapiro, Patch.com

Maryland has taken “a small but significant step” toward removing criminal penalties for medical marijuana use, said state Del. Dan Morhaim, who represents Reisterstown.

Last week, the state Senate voted in favor of a bill that provides a new defense for residents who use marijuana for medical reasons. The House had already approved the bill and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s aides said he would sign it, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

The bill, SB 308, lets patients with certain debilitating conditions, including cancer and multiple sclerosis, avoid a $100 fine and misdemeanor conviction when charged with "non-public" use or possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

Some proponents say the bill doesn’t go far enough because patients still have to obtain marijuana illegally and go through the court system if arrested.

“In the legislature, progress often comes in small steps, and this is a small but significant step in the right direction,” said Morhaim, the bill's House sponsor. “We still have a long way to go to where I’d like us to be.”

Morhaim, who practices medicine outside of his legislative duties, would like to see marijuana treated like any other medicine and allow doctors to prescribe it. 

“There are dangerous drugs that are prescribed all the time in context of their use,” he said.

The bill also calls for a work group that will consist of medical, legal and law enforcement experts. The group will recommend legislation next year.

Baltimore County police spokesman Lt. Robert McCullough said the department’s responsibility is to enforce the law and it has not experienced any change in policy in regard to the medical marijuana bill. 

“We do recognize that this an emerging issue,” he said via e-mail. “However, there have been no current discussions. In addition, there are no documents pertaining to discussions about the issue.”

While some advocacy groups say the bill is a step in the right direction, they say more legislation is needed.

Kristen Ford, field director for Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Safe Access, said patients who would routinely buy more than an ounce of marijuana now have to put themselves in risky situations more often to acquire the same amount. Under the bill, patients cannot possess more than one ounce.

“It would put them at risk for having more trips to the black market [where there] would be more chances for a police encounter,” she said.

Halethorpe resident Barry Considine uses medical marijuana to supplement his Vicodin prescription, which treats his scoliosis and osteoarthritis from post-polio syndrome. He said acquiring marijuana often puts him in “unnecessary” and “uncomfortable” situations.

“You can never be really certain until everything’s gone down okay,” he said.

Considine said he will often go to bars in Pasadena, MD, where he lived for about 20 years, to find people who can help.

“You kind of spot that guy in the bar and strike up the conversation,” he said. “I don’t like going out there and trying to score right then and there. I try to get a rapport with a barmaid or a bartender.”

He said he uses marijuana about six or seven days a month, and that helps him stretch a Vicodin prescription to fight severe pain in his knees, hands and spine, where he has two vertebrae fusions.

“[Marijuana is] a great muscle relaxer and then also … [does] a better job of controlling the neuropathic pain,” he said.

Considine said he sees the new bill as progress but would like a law that allows patients to grow their own marijuana, which some other states allow.

“If we can assure the legislature that these patients will not be part of the black market anymore, we are halfway there,” he said.

Ford agrees. 

“Patient cultivation … is the cornerstone of all functioning medical cannabis programs,” she said.

Patient cultivation refers to patients growing the plant themselves.

Morhaim is against patient cultivation, he said, because a central supply would ensure consistent quality and potency. He hopes the study reaches a consensus that moves the law toward allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana like other drugs.

“The important thing to remember is that this is really about compassionate care, people who are seriously ill [and] every standard medication has been tried and is not working,” he said. “Any medicine coming from a plant is no different and should be available.”



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