Medical marijuana bills debated in Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS — A Frederick County senator’s proposal to legalize medical marijuana faces hurdles in the state legislature as the governor voices opposition to it and similar bills.

Patients should have the option of easing their pain with marijuana, a drug that is far less dangerous than many now on the state’s pharmacy shelves, argues Sen. David Brinkley. The Republican lawmaker has repeatedly submitted such legislation, arguing the government should not block a treatment that could give relief to suffering residents.

The state passed a law last year allowing medical marijuana use as a defense in court. But it left patients no legal way to buy the drug.

“Right now, for patients and their caregivers, the only venue they have is the black market,” Brinkley said.

State-sanctioned sources for marijuana would alleviate this problem. But he said chances of success are slim with opposition from the governor.

The (Baltimore) Sun and other news outlets reported Friday that Gov. Martin O’Malley’s aides said he would veto medical marijuana bills if they succeed in the legislature this session. His administration believes Maryland employees who establish a state-regulated medical marijuana program could risk arrest and federal prosecution.

“The legal landscape is changing under our feet,” Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said during a committee hearing Friday. “It’s disappointing to me that we are in this situation of federal enforcement.”

If the state creates the medical marijuana program supported by Brinkley, legislative analysts estimate 5,000 patients would enroll in the first year, with the number of registrants swelling to 15,000 in the second year and 30,000 by the third.

One Frederick resident diagnosed about 20 years ago with multiple sclerosis said she hopes the state supports Brinkley’s proposal.

The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a cocktail of more than two dozen medications has not stopped her symptoms from worsening, and in some cases, the treatments have created additional problems.

About a year ago, on medical advice, she tried marijuana to soothe the burning and tingling in her feet. Her symptoms faded so quickly, she began to cry, she said.

“It was kind of like the unspoken and untold story you had to experience yourself to really believe,” she said. “It (marijuana) is not going to cure anything, but you have a minute to breathe. … For me, taking that breath, to not always keep spiting my body, is such a relief.”

Since then, she has smoked the drug a handful of times, she said. Until it is legalized, marijuana is hard to obtain, and she said she does not want to feel like a criminal.

She hopes those who are healthy can lay aside the stigma surrounding marijuana and understand how it aids people suffering from illness, she said.

A battle with Hodgkin lymphoma more than 20 years ago helped Brinkley understand the anxiety and pain patients can experience.

“When you see some families that are dealing with a loved one who is sick or dying, why should the state stand in the way of them trying to relieve some of their pain and suffering?” Brinkley said.

Brinkley said he never turned to marijuana during his illness.

Since California legalized medical marijuana use in 1996, 15 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. California and Colorado have not regulated the drug well, Brinkley said, and his proposal would set up many more safeguards.

For instance, his bill would require criminal background checks for growers and caregivers who apply for licenses to cultivate or obtain marijuana.

As Brinkley’s bill makes its way through the Maryland Senate, an identical proposal sponsored by Delegate Dan Morhaim is in the House of Delegates. A host of supporters, including television talk show host Montel Williams, turned out to testify for medical marijuana bills Friday in a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees.

Under the bill sponsored by Brinkley and Morhaim, pharmacies and academic research and dispensing centers would provide marijuana.

These centers, prescribing physicians and growers would all have to register with a state medical marijuana oversight commission, and qualified patients would have to hold a special identification card granted by that body.

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