Medical Marijuana Advocates Voice Opposition as Well-Intentioned, But Flawed Bill Passes Maryland Legislature

April 08, 2013
Annapolis, MD -- The Maryland Senate voted 42-4 today to pass what legislators are calling a new statewide medical marijuana bill, but patient advocates say that HB1101 is more symbolic than practical and will fail to make much "real-world" difference in the lives of patients. Specifically, HB1101, which has already been passed by the House of Delegates, would extend the current affirmative defense for patients who are arrested and prosecuted under state law, but would provide no way for patients to obtain their medication. Agreeing with the sentiment of advocates, the nonpartisan Maryland Department of Legislative Services issued a fiscal note last month that questioned the bill's effectiveness, casting doubt on whether it will ever meet legislators' expectations.

"We commend the Maryland legislature for grappling with the issue of medical marijuana," said Mike Liszewski, Policy Director with Americans for Safe Access, the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy organization. "However, because HB1101 fails to establish a well-regulated system that allows patients to cultivate their medicine or safely obtain it from a licensed dispensary, Maryland cannot be considered the 19th medical marijuana state." With uncertainty of when or even whether patients will be able to register in the program, advocates are refusing to recognize Maryland as the 19th medical marijuana state.

HB1101 was introduced earlier this year by House Del. Dr. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) at the behest of Maryland Health & Mental Hygiene Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who developed the untested approach of requiring that medical marijuana be obtain exclusively from a licensed "Academic Medical Center" (AMC). Because of the bill's support by Secretary Sharfstein, and Governor Martin O'Malley's agreement to sign the bill, HB1101 overwhelmingly passed both houses of the legislature and is soon expected to be signed into law.

The main concern advocates have with HB1101 is that it fails to establish a well-regulated system for qualified patients to cultivate their own medical marijuana, a right that has been the cornerstone of most state laws since the passage of California's Compassionate Use Act in 1996. The only way patients can obtain their medicine under HB1101 is from a licensed AMC, which would be responsible for not only dispensing medical marijuana, but also staffing the physicians that would recommend marijuana to qualified Maryland patients. This untested scheme, advocates say, will leave physicians unnecessarily vulnerable to prosecution under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Department of Legislative Services (DLS) asserted in its fiscal note last month that, "the two primary institutions that would be most likely considered as participating academic medical institutions under the bill (Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland), have stated that they will not participate." Furthermore, DLS stated that because of regulatory hurdles, "the earliest patients could benefit through academic centers is FY 2016." This delay is also expected to hold up the patient registration process, since medical center physicians will be the only doctors in the state authorized to process applications for entry into the program.

Perhaps most importantly, despite expected delays in implementation, HB1101 will be far from budget neutral. DLS predicts that the program will require funds immediately, estimated at a minimum of $400,000 in FY2014, rising to nearly $1 million in FY2015, none of which will be financed by the program itself. Under HB1101, all revenue needed to run the Maryland medical marijuana program will come from the state's general fund. "Patients' needs should not be pitted against the needs of other Maryland taxpayers," continued Liszewski. "An internally financed, self-sustaining medical marijuana program is not only achievable in Maryland, it's much preferable to one that will drain the general fund."

Liszewski and ASA provided suggested amendments to HB1101, along with testimony before the Maryland legislature on behalf of patients and important healthcare issues that have gone largely unaddressed by HB1101. However, despite the amendments and testimony being ignored, medical marijuana advocates will continue to push for more useful and practical legislation in Maryland, including clear rules for qualified patients and law enforcement, a strictly regulated production and distribution system, and a system that will protect patients from housing and workplace discrimination. The Maryland legislature also recently passed HB180, a bill that would provide an affirmative defense to medical marijuana caregivers, which is strongly supported by advocates.

Further information:
Text of HB1101: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2013RS/bills/hb/hb1101T.pdf
HB1101 Fiscal and Policy Note by Dept. of Legislative Services: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2013RS/fnotes/bil_0001/hb1101.pdf
ASA Fact Sheet on HB1101: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/MD_HB1101_Fact_Sheet.pdf

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