Medical marijuana future uncertain

April 27, 2013

Jeremy Cox, Gannet

Maryland’s “yellow-light approach” to freeing marijuana for medical use may as well be a red light, some advocates say.

As the dust settles from the measure’s avalanche of support in the General Assembly, supporters on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay are skeptical it will make any difference for patients anytime soon — if ever.

“It seems like, in spirit, the state is behind medical marijuana, but it doesn’t have the nerve to put through a program that will benefit patients,” said Mike Liszewski, policy director of the Washington-based group Americans for Safe Access.

The bill passed by a 108-28 vote in the House of Delegates and 42-4 in the Senate; Gov. Martin O’Malley still needs to sign it for it to become law. It allows hospitals affiliated with education programs to dispense marijuana to patients as part of research projects.­

The tack diverges from the 18 previous states that have passed medical marijuana laws despite a federal ban. Most of those states allowed the drug to be sold at dispensaries and patients to grow limited supplies themselves.

The advocacy group that championed the bill in Maryland applauded the measure.

Although access will be sharply restricted, “it’s still a broad step forward for Maryland,” said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project.

One of the keys to the bill’s legislative success was the backing of O’Malley’s administration. Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the state secretary of health and mental hygiene, dubbed it a “yellow-light approach” in the face of uncertainty about federal prosecution of state employees.­

In 2009, the Obama administration directed federal prosecutors to ease off pursuing medical marijuana patients. But U.S. law enforcement officers’ crackdown in recent years on California dispensaries has raised fears that patients remain in a legal gray area.

The Maryland bill expressly prohibits arrest or prosecution of any patient, grower or medical professional associated with the program. Anyone who diverts the drugs for sale or other use will face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

If O’Malley signs the bill, patients will still face a handful of obstacles before they can get a prescription.

First is the wait. The bill creates a commission to oversee the program. The earliest it could be up and running would be in the latter half of 2015, according to the legislature’s in-house analysis of the bill’s effects.

Since it won’t be able to collect fees from dispensaries and limits the number of growers to five entities, the program is expected to cost taxpayers $544,000 by 2018.

“It would either be a drain on the taxpayers or the fees would be ­prohibitively high,” ­Liszewski said.

Another problem is that it’s unclear whether any hospitals would be willing to participate.

Johns Hopkins, one of the state’s leaders in medical research, is “open to a conversation” about a medical marijuana program, “but right now it would be premature to commit to administering or participating in such a program,” spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in a statement.

Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and emergency room physician, testified before lawmakers that Sinai Hospital in Baltimore hadn’t committed to participating but expressed interest. The hospital said in a statement it “will consider all safe and proven treatment options that have the potential to alleviate (patients’) pain and suffering.”

Regardless of what happens, seriously ill Lower Shore patients will probably have to cross the Bay Bridge for treatment.

Peninsula Regional Medical Center administrators recently signaled interest in developing a medical school in partnership with local colleges and universities. But it’s almost certain not to become a reality until after the medical marijuana program gets off the ground.

Five out of the eight members of the Shore’s legislative delegation voted against the measure. Those in favor of it were Democrats Rudolph Cane of Wicomico County and Sen. Jim Mathias of Worcester and Republican Sen. Richard Colburn of Dorchester.

Colburn acknowledged that a political observer might find it odd for a Republican like himself to support medical marijuana. But as a survivor of prostate cancer, he added, “you see marijuana as a treatment for cancer through different eyes.”

Maryland has had a law on the books since 2003 allowing those who use marijuana for medicinal purposes to avoid conviction. Robert Ryan, a state GOP central committee official in those years, got his party to support the measure, but it took three straw polls before he found success.

“I was ahead of my time,” said Ryan, a propulsion engineer and one-time mayoral candidate in Salisbury. “For every single poll done since the summer before, Americans have been above the 50 percent mark for legalizing marijuana.”

He grew interested in the topic after his son was arrested on a marijuana-related charge, which he would go on to beat.

The medical marijuana bill will be useless by 2016, he said, because he predicts it will be legal for everyone by then anyway.

Kris Adams, a property manager in Salisbury, has been friends with Ryan for years but disagreed with his stance on marijuana. But her feelings evolved throughout the years as she cared for two loved ones who died after painful battles with cancer.

“It’s a start,” she said of the pending state legislation, “but that’s not much of a start because much of that research is already out there anyway. It’s not a conservative or a liberal issue. It’s an issue of does it work or doesn’t it.”

For one Salisbury woman, medical marijuana can’t come soon enough.

She started smoking it in February, when she began undergoing chemotherapy treatment for esophageal cancer. She declined to be identified by name because she obtains the marijuana through backdoor channels and fears being stigmatized as a “pothead.”

Maryland’s marijuana probably won’t be available in time to help her, she said, but she sees hope in lawmakers’ efforts.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “I’m proud of our governor.”

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