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New Maryland Governor Supports Medical Marijuana



by Steven T. Dennis
Staff Writer

Jan. 22, 2003

Legislators drafting a variety of bills

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said he will sign legislation to legalize medical marijuana, giving new hope to advocates who say the drug can help relieve nausea from chemotherapy and other debilitating conditions.

Ehrlich said Thursday that he has long supported legalizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, and that "if the bill makes sense," he would sign it into law.

With last year's chief medical marijuana advocate now out of the legislature, a doctor, a nurse and a cancer survivor are among the lawmakers drafting marijuana bills.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, a physician, wants to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana under strict controls. Two doctors would have to sign off on the prescription and follow up to see how patients are responding to treatment.

Morhaim envisions the state government eventually growing and distributing marijuana to ensure consistent quality and control.

"It's not like you need a huge field," Morhaim said. "You don't need acres and acres."

Morhaim said it would be helpful if Ehrlich can use his influence with President George W. Bush (R) to relax federal prohibitions on marijuana possession, provided that the use is in accordance with a state program.

"We prescribe drugs much more dangerous than marijuana," Morhaim said. "We prescribe narcotics, we even prescribe cocaine on occasion. Like any medical tool, it's going to help some people and not others."

But advocates for the legislation lost a key supporter in the House when Ehrlich nominated Del. Thomas E. Hutchins (R-Dist. 28) of Port Tobacco as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Hutchins, a retired Maryland State Police trooper who has been a member of the Maryland Army National Guard for more than 30 years, was planning to carry the legislation in the House, bringing a respectable military-law enforcement voice to the issue.

Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairwoman Paula C. Hollinger (D-Dist. 11) of Pikesville, meanwhile, is drafting a bill that would issue patients an identity card that would give them immunity from prosecution for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Physicians also would be protected from arrest, as would caregivers.

But Hollinger, who said she expects her bill to go to her committee, does not see the state growing and distributing the drug; instead, patients would be allowed to grow up to three mature marijuana plants and four immature plants at any one time.

Under Hollinger's bill, the Board of Physician Quality Assurance would oversee the process.

Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market, a cancer survivor, is drafting a bill similar to the compromise measure that passed the House last year. That bill would have reduced penalties for the medical use of marijuana to a maximum of $100.

Brinkley said he will coordinate his efforts with Hollinger, Morhaim and Ehrlich.

"I never used it, but I feel that very sick people in the state shouldn't be hassled," he said, adding that it does not make sense for the state to incarcerate people who are dying and may benefit from the drug.

Brinkley said if a bill passes and Ehrlich signs it, it will be nationally significant, both because Ehrlich is a Republican and because Maryland would be one of the first states on the East Coast to pass medical marijuana legislation. It also would put the issue directly on Congress' doorstep.

Advocates say people who suffer from cancer, glaucoma, nausea, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy can benefit from using marijuana, which can relieve some symptoms. But opponents worry that legalizing the drug's use -- in however limited a fashion -- could open the door to complete legalization and confuse young people who are being told not to use drugs.

Any medical marijuana bill still faces a tough time in the legislature. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis is cool to the idea, and he voted against the House bill last year. Busch said the medical community has not gotten behind the idea.

"I think the devil is in the details," he said. "I don't feel comfortable all of a sudden legalizing a controlled dangerous substance."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach has kept an open mind on the issue, saying he planned to sit in on the hearings.

Politically, the issue plays well into Ehrlich's image as a different kind of Republican. The "Just Say No" crowd generally opposes any legalization of drugs, but Ehrlich, a lawyer and former member of the Judiciary Committee, has avoided doctrinaire positions. In Congress, he was one of a few Republicans to co-sponsor a medical marijuana bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Copyright 2003 The Gazette

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Distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in
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