WASHINGTON – Possession of marijuana is illegal in Maryland, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000. But for doctors who recommend it and patients in the state who use it, the benefits of medicinal marijuana far outweigh the fear of arrest.
St. Mary’s County resident Kerri Andrews said she took marijuana on the advice of her doctor to treat her epilepsy. She said she the drug changed her life.
“I was on barbiturates before that and they were completely messing me up — I couldn’t remember my daughter’s name,” she said. But while on marijuana, she went without an epileptic seizure for as long as eight months, she added.
Andrews said she is taking another drug for her epilepsy now but said that, if she has to, she will go back to marijuana as a treatment.
That response is not unusual for medicinal marijuana users, said Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project.
“Patients who’re already using marijuana will keep using it because it helps them more than any medication,” said Thomas.
His Washington-based group estimates there are 2,000 medicinal marijuana users in Maryland. Help for those users could be just across the border, if a recently approved initiative on the issue in the District is allowed to go into effect.
Studies have shown that marijuana can alleviate pain in diseases like AIDS and some types of cancer, and clear vision in cases of glaucoma. Under the District’s Initiative 59, patients in the city could grow, possess and use marijuana for their ailments, if they had a written recommendation for it from their doctors.
“Until 1937, when marijuana was declared an illegal drug in the country, it was used as a medicine, like any other herb,” Thomas said.
A 1998 opinion poll by the Center for Substance Abuse Research showed that 71 percent of Maryland residents think that physicians should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for medical uses. The same poll also found that 24 percent felt adults over 21 should be able to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use without legal penalty.
But whatever the arguments, possession of marijuana is still illegal in Maryland and anyone found with the smallest amount on them will be arrested, said Pete Piringer, a Maryland State Police spokesman.
Police made 28,694 arrests in the state in 1998 for possession of marijuana. Piringer said nearly 1,000 of those arrests were made as a result of traffic stops.
He added that any change in D.C. laws on medicinal marijuana would not make a difference in Maryland: People buying marijuana in the District and using it in Maryland would still face arrest.
But Dr. Deborah Goldberg believes that marijuana should be legalized for medicinal use. Goldberg, a physician who once practiced in Silver Spring, said she recommended marijuana use to patients and friends in the past and testified on the medicinal benefits of the drug during a federal marijuana trial in the 1980s.
“Marijuana is definitely useful in some diseases,” she said. “I find that it helps people with gastrointestinal diseases.”
Legalization would allow more research on marijuana’s medicinal uses, said Goldberg. There are a few studies on the usefulness of marijuana now, but more needs to be done, she added.
Legal or not, medicinal marijuana users say the drug is easy to get in Maryland. Piringer confirmed its popularity, noting that police make more arrests for marijuana than for any other drug.
“It is so incredibly available,” said Leslie Miller of Chestertown. Until her arrest for possession last year, Miller said she smoked marijuana to control chronic pain in her back and legs after an accident.
Andrews said she used to get her marijuana from a D.C. “buyers’ club,” a group of medicinal marijuana users who provide marijuana to other patients. The club she patronized was organized by an AIDS patient in the District who has since died, she said.
Before she started taking marijuana, Andrews said, “I could not be a good mother … I had a complete family life while on marijuana.”