Doctor-legislator eyes new medical marijuana measure
Positive signs from D.C., legalization in other states buoy pot advocates
When Del. Dan K. Morhaim is in the emergency room, he can administer cocaine to anesthetize a patient. But he cannot write a prescription for marijuana as a pain reliever or nausea remedy.
That's just one of the flaws in Maryland's narrow medical marijuana law that Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, an emergency physician at Sinai and Northwest hospitals in Baltimore, is out to fix during next year's legislative session.
"Physicians prescribe drugs that have risks and benefits, and we make those judgments all the time," he said. "There's a whole method of accountability and responsibility and constraints that control that."
While budget discussions will take center stage in Annapolis, medical marijuana advocates believe the momentum for their cause has never been greater.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said federal narcotics agents will not crack down on pot dispensaries or prosecute users in states where the drug is allowed for medicinal purposes, reversing a Bush administration policy.
And last month the American Medical Association shifted its stance in urging the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II controlled substance, which is less restrictive than the Schedule I group it is currently in, alongside Ecstasy, heroin and PCP.
"Public perception has indeed been on our side," said Michael Meno, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. "The problem is that the people are ahead of the politicians on this one, and there are still those politicians that still think it's politically risky to come out in favor of laws that will protect sick and dying patients from arrest."
Under current state law, Marylanders can be arrested and charged for possession of marijuana, but they can avoid jail time and receive a maximum $100 fine if they can prove they have it for medicinal use.
Morhaim's proposal would be set up similar to the state's slots legislation. Companies that want to grow the plant would have to bid for a license and be regulated by the state to ensure it is being done in a safe location and properly manufactured. The producers would then give a portion of its gross sales revenue to the state.
Former Del. Donald E. Murphy, who led the charge earlier this decade for the state to legalize medical marijuana, believes the political dynamics surrounding the issue have shifted enough to warrant another look.
"The attorney general's new position has made it safe to go back in the water in terms of new legislation and we really need to do that now," said Murphy, a lobbyist who has worked on the controversial issue in other states.
Since 1996, 13 states have passed some form of a law legalizing medical marijuana California was the first, Michigan was the most recent and about a dozen others are considering legislation, Meno said.
Broadening the law in Maryland may prove difficult.
First, Morhaim's bill will have to win support from the notoriously tough House Judiciary Committee.
The panel's vice chairman, Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore, expressed willingness to consider expanding the law if the expansion has no cost.
The modified federal policy to respect the sovereignty of states that have medical marijuana laws in the books "certainly changes the landscape for us next year," he said.
And, Rosenberg said, time has helped to shape the public perception of marijuana as a substance that has medicinal benefits.
"I think that the public differentiates between medical marijuana and the street distribution of more serious drugs," he said.
Still, other lawmakers remain skeptical.
Regardless of the drug's potential upside, marijuana contains potentially harmful carcinogens, said Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, who was a nurse for nearly three decades.
She recently visited an Eastern Shore hospice facility where the subject of legalizing marijuana came up in a conversation with a physician who was wary about the lasting effects on patients and favored newer pharmaceutical approaches.
"You can get a quick relief from inhaling many things, but the issue is the management over time," said Eckardt (R-Dist. 37B) of Cambridge. "He was of the opinion, as I have been, that there are certainly other interventions in which you don't have to deal with adding more toxins to the body."
She also questioned the timing of the effort at a time when all eyes should be on the economy.
"I'm concerned we get too [far] off on tangents," Eckardt said. "We can do a lot of things out there [in Annapolis], but we really need to be focusing on essential services for our citizens. When we're in good times, maybe that's an option."
Even Del. Henry B. Heller (D-Dist. 19) of Leisure World, who sponsored a bill in this year's General Assembly to examine greater accessibility of medical marijuana, thinks Morhaim's measure might be too ambitious and politically risky, particularly in an election year.
And he worries that if Maryland legalizes marijuana even if it's only for medicinal use the state would "become a mecca for people on the East Coast" looking to purchase and use the drug illegally.
Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine are the only states on the Eastern seaboard that have legalized medical marijuana.
For Morhaim, it boils down to the medical value that marijuana offers and giving physicians another tool to prescribe when appropriate. Doctors wouldn't administer it to combat an upset stomach, he said.
"It doesn't mean it's the first thing you use or the only thing you use. It doesn't mean you wouldn't try other things first in a rational sequence," he said. "Marijuana, to me, is just another medication. It has risks, it has benefits, it has side effects and appropriate uses when other things don't work."