Md. legislators consider dueling bills on medical, synthetic pot


ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Real marijuana might prove more popular than its synthetic cousins in this year’s state legislative session.

Moved by a recent outcry from their constituents, Frederick County legislators brought to Annapolis an armload of bills cracking down on synthetic marijuana, commonly known by brand names such as Spice. Other state lawmakers came with similar concerns.

Although the local proposals got a hearing, they have taken a back seat to more comprehensive legislation. In early February, two statewide bills separated from the pack and passed the House of Delegates with overwhelming support.

At the same time, there is new energy behind efforts to legalize medical marijuana, and some proponents are the very same legislators who carry the torch for bills targeting the use of synthetic marijuana.

Delegate Michael Hough, R-District 3B, is crying foul.

“The hypocrisy of it is overwhelming,” he said. “What kind of message are we as leaders of the state and lawmakers sending to the young people?”

A proposal sponsored by Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, has gained particular attention for earning support from officials in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration. Sen. David Brinkley has joined Morhaim in the past to sponsor a similar version of this year’s bill, which would pave the way for academic centers to study marijuana as a medical treatment.

But Brinkley, R-District 4, has been vocal in his support of a synthetic-marijuana ban and sponsored a Frederick County bill to curb the substance. The hard-line stance on Spice is not inconsistent with his position on marijuana, he said.

“The big distinction is that it (marijuana) is not causing psychosis,” Brinkley said.

With synthetic marijuana, new variations are constantly emerging, and buyers do not know what they are ingesting, Brinkley said. By contrast, naturally occurring marijuana has a more consistent chemical makeup.

Delegate Galen Clagett, D-District 3A, agreed.

“One is a weed, and the other is fabricated. … The fabrication is not at all controlled. It just runs rampant. They just keep devising one thing after another. That, I think, is very dangerous,” said Clagett, who both co-sponsored Morhaim’s bill and introduced statewide legislation cracking down on synthetic drugs.

Hough countered that marijuana sold on the street can be every bit as unpredictable as its synthetic counterparts.

Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland’s secretary of health and mental hygiene, also said he sees no incongruity in supporting both a medical-marijuana bill and synthetic-drug bans. There are concerns about both substances, and use of cannabis as a remedy should be explored slowly and carefully, he said.

“I’m concerned about the risks of marijuana. That’s one of the reasons I don’t support a green-light approach,” he said.

Under current law, possessing marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The law provides a defense, however, for those who use marijuana to treat a debilitating medical condition.

Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith said he is not happy with the move to loosen restrictions on marijuana. If a medical-marijuana proposal passes, regulating the substance would create a huge expense that taxpayers will have to carry, he said. It would also legitimize a substance that serves as a gateway to more dangerous drugs, he said.

“What happens is that the high becomes mundane to them after a while, and they move on to a better high,” he said. “It’s just a shame that there’s a movement afoot to legalize it.”

Morhaim’s proposal is still under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee. Two bills, sponsored by delegates Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, and Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Caroline, that would combine to create a statewide ban on synthetic marijuana, have cleared the House and are now before the Senate.

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