Universities could distribute medical marijuanaOption suggested by state work groupBy ASHLEY M. LATTA, Capital News Service
In May, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill providing a legal defense for marijuana use by patients who have been diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition that is "severe and resistant to conventional medicine."
But the new law does not permit the possession of medical marijuana in Maryland, since lawmakers wanted to research that issue first. So the law created the Maryland Medical Marijuana Model Program Work Group and assigned it to make recommendations.
"It's still a crime to possess marijuana for medical use," said Debbie Miran, a chemist, work group member and leukemia survivor.
Karen O'Keefe, another work group member and director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., said, "There's no way for a patient to get the marijuana other than a drug dealer, and it's a felony to grow it,"
Members of the work group set out to create a model that would allow for further research into medical marijuana and more comprehensive legislation.
The two models the group devised overlap. Both outline conditions for enforcement, regulation and accountability.
The key to the first proposed piece of legislation is that the distribution of medical marijuana would occur only throughacademic institutions. Those institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, would control distribution to patients.
But the institutions would risk losing federal funding, as distribution would still violate federal law.
The second drafted bill is modeled after earlier proposals in Maryland, as well as other state laws. It would allow doctors to apply for permission to recommend medical marijuana and require those physicians to participate in a training program.
But physicians could not physically handle or distribute the drug, and patients would still require a legal avenue of access.
Out of options
Miran said she turned to medical marijuana after a bone marrow transplant, when her medications made it so difficult to eat that she lost 40 pounds.
"That was a horrible decision for us to make," she said. "It wasn't legal."
But she didn't have any other options. "I was a walking skeleton," she said.
The most common diagnoses for which medical marijuana may be recommended include cancers, AIDS and conditions such as multiple sclerosis, which cause severe ongoing, chronic or neuropathic pain.
"The goal of the legislation … is to have medical marijuana be available to those folks who would benefit," said Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, the only licensed physician in the General Assembly, and a member of the work group.
By today, Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, also a work group member, was scheduled to present the group's findings to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the House Health and Government Operations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.
During the 2010 session, the Maryland Senate passed a bill that would have protected patients from arrest for possession of medical marijuana and established licensed centers to cultivate and distribute marijuana. Opposition from Sharfstein helped prevent passage in the House of Delegates.
The primary legal stipulation in the amended bill that did pass last spring was the establishment of an affirmative defense for the use or possession of marijuana for medical purposes by patients with severe conditions resistant to conventional treatments.
The law does not protect patients from arrest. It merely provides a legal defense if the patient can prove medical necessity.
Up to lawmakers
Once the legislation prepared by the work group becomes available, it will be up to state lawmakers to decide whether to pass a more comprehensive bill.
"I would imagine that at least one of the members of the legislature would introduce at least one piece of (medical marijuana) legislation," O'Keefe said.
A poll conducted earlier this year found that 72 percent of Maryland voters support a bill that would allow patients with serious illnesses to purchase and use medical marijuana with their doctors' approval, after the use of conventional treatments. The poll, conducted Feb. 18 -20 by Public Policy Polling, surveyed 1,076 registered voters.
Sixteen states and the Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana. The federal government has not legalized the use of marijuana, classified by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule I drug, under any circumstances.
Current Maryland law does not protect defendants charged with marijuana use in public or those in possession of more than an ounce.