ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration opposed Friday measures to legalize medical marijuana, citing concerns that state employees could face federal prosecution for putting into place proposals now before state lawmakers.
Joshua Sharfstein, the governor’s health secretary, spoke out against the legislation at a bill hearing. He said he supports the concept of a measure that would allow academic centers to run a medical marijuana program with strong oversight, but he expressed concern that federal prosecutors have said state employees could be at risk of arrest for implementing the idea.
“I won’t support the bill because we think that path is blocked right now,” Sharfstein told reporters before a hearing on bills in Maryland. “But I will say that, would the federal landscape look different, then I would support a bill like this.”
Rick Abbruzzese, O’Malley’s director of public affairs, confirmed the governor would veto medical marijuana legislation this session. O’Malley, a Democrat, did not take questions from reporters during an unrelated event Friday morning in the statehouse.
The hearings in Annapolis brought sick residents and a famous advocate to speak out in support of the legislation.
Former talk show host Montel Williams, a Baltimore native, is telling lawmakers they should move forward, because they can relieve the suffering of thousands.
“You’ve gone through all of the necessary legislative processes to come up with informed bills,” Williams told a joint hearing of the House Health and Government Operations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. “Committees have looked at it. You’ve researched it. You’ve studied it. You could stop that suffering today.”
Medical marijuana is legal to varying degrees in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
Del. Dan Morhaim is a Baltimore County Democrat who is sponsoring legislation that would establish a commission to develop requests for applications for academic medical centers to operate programs in the state. He told the panels that no state employees in states where medical marijuana is legal have been arrested by federal authorities.
“The purpose of this is to relieve suffering for thousands of Marylanders in a safe, responsible and accountable way,” said Morhaim, an emergency room physician.
In 2003, Maryland approved a law limiting sentencing to a $100 fine for people who use marijuana if they have a medical excuse. Critics say that still drives people whose pain could be alleviated by marijuana into alleys to buy from drug dealers.
Last year, lawmakers passed legislation to eliminate the possibility of conviction for people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes if they have a debilitating illness. The measure also created a workgroup to study ways of allowing medical marijuana, which resulted in the legislation this session. Sharfstein was a member of the workgroup.