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Md. legislators ponder medical marijuana law

ANNAPOLIS — Will this be the year a medical marijuana bill passes the Maryland General Assembly?

Sen. David Brinkley, R-District 4, said that if re-elected, he plans to introduce a bill similar to the one that passed the Senate during the last session that would legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. A version of the bill failed in the House of Delegates.

Brinkley said the bill, which would license producers, distributors and users, would address the important issue of providing a reliable source for the product as an alternative to buying it on the black market.

Currently, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have allowed the use of medical marijuana, although it remains illegal under federal law.

Under current Maryland law signed by then-Governor Robert Ehrlich in 2003, defendants charged with use or possession of marijuana can argue a medical need as a mitigating factor at their sentencing. If the judge finds evidence of a medical necessity, the maximum penalty allowed is a $100 fine.

That law still subjects medical users to being arrested and face the possibility of spending a night or even a weekend in jail, as well as the cost of hiring an attorney to represent them and having a conviction on their record, said Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.

The organization does not include Maryland as one of the 14 states with what it considers “effective” marijuana laws.

The current law already acknowledges that some people use marijuana for medical purposes, said Del. Dan Morhaim, D-District 11, who co-sponsored the House bill. By continuing to have the law in place, the state is putting regular people at risk of being criminals, he said.

Morhaim, a doctor who serves on the faculty of the University of Maryland Medical School and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, said he wants marijuana to be treated like any other type of dangerous medication routinely prescribed by physicians.

“It’s not the drug, it’s the context of its use,” he said.

The bills would assure the quality of the marijuana that’s produced and only allow doctors to recommend marijuana use rather than prescribe it, he said. Those recommendations would have to be renewed periodically, he said.

He claimed the bill would be the most narrowly constructed medical marijuana bill in the country to pass through a state legislature.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration advocates the use of Marinol, a pharmaceutical product with an active ingredient of synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, one of the main products of marijuana.

“Unlike smoked marijuana — which contains more than 400 different chemicals, including most of the hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke — Marinol has been studied and approved by the medical community and the Food and Drug Administration,” according to the DEA website.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America also has concerns about legalizing medical marijuana.

The group, “is compassionate toward those who are struggling with serious illness, and we know that some have reported finding relief from smoked marijuana. Having said that, we know marijuana can be harmful, especially to kids whose brains are still developing, and we believe that medicine should be researched, reviewed and approved through the FDA process, not referendum,” according to its website.

While Morhaim agrees that patients should try Marinol first, he argued that patients with nausea from chemotherapy won’t feel like taking a pill, which he said is the only form Marinol comes in.

And waves of nausea often only last 10-15 minutes, and would likely be over by the time Marinol’s effects kick in, he said.

While marijuana is certainly not a cure-all, and can be abused like legal drugs, doctors should be able to prescribe it if they believe it will help their patient, he said.

“Why should this drug be treated differently?” he asked.