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Kym Byrnes, Baltimore Sun
Expanding Maryland's fledgling law on medical marijuana proved to be one of the key issues of the just-completed General Assembly session, and an Annapolis mother proved to be a key player in the reform bill that passed the House and Senate.
In the fight to gain access to medical marijuana for her 4-year-old son, Logan, who suffers up to 10 seizures a day because of epilepsy, Gail Rand put herself at the heart of the debate, starting at the opening gavel of the 90-day session when she was on hand to lobby House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"It was a pretty powerful part of the last couple months for me," Rand said of the assembly session.
Legislators passed a medical marijuana bill that effectively overrides last year's failed program. The state's earlier effort approved distribution of the drug through medical centers conducting research, but regulations were never approved and no such centers came forward to participate.
This year's law, instead of relying on academic institutions to administer the drug, will allow for private growers and dispensaries. The program will be overseen by the state's medical marijuana commission.
Legislators, Rand said, were "open-minded and opened-hearted enough to listen to us and hear us. I think they've even done things I haven't thought of — like including some annual reporting requirements that might help make Maryland an example of success for other states and the federal level."
Rand said she wished the bill allowed patients to get more than a 30-day supply — she believes it might be an inconvenience, depending on where the drug is made available. But there are elements she applauds, including the fact that physicians do not have to be associated with a hospital or hospice to prescribe the drug, as was suggested in an early draft of the bill.
She said she also appreciates that the bill protects caregivers and does not require children under 18 to get a special exemption for the use of medical marijuana — that, too, was a provision in an early draft of the bill.
Rand said the legislators deserve credit for "taking the time to look critically at the issue and for listening to constituents. I think [legislators] listened to some of the things we said about patient access."
"Gail was just hardworking, tenacious and told her story well," said Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County, the only physician in the Assembly. "She represented a group of parents very effectively and put a human face on the problem."
Morhaim said there are patients suffering from all kinds of illnesses waiting for access to medical marijuana. He said as the father of an adult daughter with epilepsy, he could relate to Rand's struggles.
"It's important for legislators to see that this is not just in the abstract, it really affects people in a very serious and real way," he said. "She did a very good job of learning in a short period of time the ins and outs of the legislative process. She's a very effective advocate and very flexible."
Mike Liszewski, government affairs director for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, worked with Rand through the session, giving her tips on lobbying that she used to press her cause.
"She was really tireless this session," Liszewski said.
Testimony from Rand and others who would be personally affected by legalized medical marijuana helped sway lawmakers, Liszewski said. "It really adds a new dynamic that makes it difficult for politicians to ignore the issue," he said.
Morhaim said that while he's satisfied with the current bill, he regrets it took so long to get it passed. He said he's been advocating for such a bill since 2001.
"People have been suffering while we go through this process," he said.
Rand described her son is a "happy little guy" who enjoys life but suffers seizures every day and is developmentally delayed. According to published research, there is anecdotal evidence that marijuana can reduce seizures, though researchers say more study needs to be done.
Rand said it was important for her, and other parents raising sick children, to advocate for the right to medicine that will improve her son's quality of life.
"I'm hoping that this will allow access for my son, hoping it will get us there," Rand said. "It will take time, but they've developed what should be a great program."
She said she has heard it will be 12 to 18 months before the program is put in place and she can obtain medical marijuana for her son. Although she said she thinks that's an optimistic prediction, she's pleased legislators are thinking aggressively.
"I think they did a great job in being quite aggressive," Rand said. "The regulations are to be written by Sept. 15. It's a lofty goal, and I appreciate it because it will speed up the process."
Rand believes the bill came to fruition because many families shared their stories and legislators listened. It was her first experience with politics, and in the end, she said, the process worked as it should.
"It was not so much a fight as it was an education," she said. "Everyone was eager to hear my story and my perspective. It's the life we live every day, so we know what's important."