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Two pot bills, two legislative approaches

ANNAPOLIS — Legislation expanding the state’s medical marijuana appears inevitable, lawmakers say, even as the House of Delegates and Senate have passed substantially different measures.

Members of a legislative work group continue to meet to discuss competing proposals. Lawmakers say they hope a consensus bill passed before the General Assembly completes its work on April 7 will ease access to patients who need the drug.

“People are talking a lot about it,” said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County. “It’s an interesting topic.”

Morhaim is the only physician in the General Assembly and one of the leaders on medical marijuana issues in the legislature in recent years.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jaimie” Raskin, sponsor of Senate Bill 923, said the informal talks began even before the House and Senate moved to conform the other chamber’s bill to their own.

“It will be interesting to have the discussion about it. In truth, we’re probably not that far away,” Raskin said. “There are competing valid concerns on both sides.”

“Nobody is approaching this in a dogmatic, inflexible way,” Raskin said. “We all want to get to yes.”

The General Assembly passed the state’s medical marijuana law last year, authorizing academic hospitals to order marijuana for patients with severe or debilitating diseases and conditions.

But no hospitals have ordered the treatment out of concern for how using a drug that is illegal under federal law would affect federal funding and grants.

Legislative leaders returned to Annapolis looking to fine-tune the existing program and make it accessible to patients.

With roughly a week left in the 90-day session, the House and Senate find themselves in a position of having passed different versions of the same bill.

Both bills would allow individual physicians to be licensed to recommend patients begin using marijuana for treatment of their illness. Federal law prevents the order from being a prescription though it would effectively be the same.

The Senate version, passed Thursday, also allows for the creation and licensing of treatment centers — a minimum of one in each jurisdiction and as many as two in each of the state’s 47 legislative districts — where the drug can be ordered. The centers would separate the growers from those who order and supply the drug to patients.

Raskin said he expects that the elimination of limits on the number of licensed growers in the state will be the biggest topic of discussion.

The Senate version also removed the cap on how many growers can be licensed in the state and leaves it to a state commission to determine how many licenses to issue. Currently, only 10 can be licensed, though no licenses have been issued.

“We know there is a huge legitimate demand for medical marijuana and we want to make sure there is an effective market that keeps the price affordable for people who need it,” Raskin said. “We don’t just want this to be a license to make money.”

Morhaim said demand will ultimately come down to clinical decisions made by doctor, something that, as of yet, has not happened.

“If no doctors write no marijuana or no patients then the issue of demand will be irrelevant,” Morhaim said.

Data collection provisions in the law will ultimately allow the state to size up the market and see if supply matches the demand, Morhaim said.

“It’s not about growers,” Morhaim said. “In the end it’s about helping our neighbors and friends. That’s what is going to determine everything else.”