ANNAPOLIS – Medical marijuana legislation is nearly dead this year, and supportive lawmakers have little hope they can resurrect it.
Despite the testimony from numerous people who use marijuana with their doctors’ approval to alleviate nausea, loss of appetite and relieve pain, Maryland legislators said the bill decriminalizing the medical use of marijuana has too many loopholes.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee killed the bill March 2 and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, has refused to give it a vote, despite repeated protests from bill sponsor Delegate Donald Murphy, R-Baltimore County.
“The bill is in the drawer,” Murphy said. “We had a hearing. We didn’t have a vote on it. It’s wrong. If the will of the committee is not heard, then the constituents are not heard.”
Supportive lawmakers have made two last attempts to keep the medical marijuana measure alive. Murphy proposed another bill to penalize doctors who recommend marijuana to patients who are then arrested.
“Doctors can’t have it both ways,” Murphy has said. “If they want to oppose a bill to protect their patients and privately endorse marijuana use, they should suffer the same consequences as the patient.”
A referendum bill, sponsored by Delegate David Valderrama, D-Prince George’s, would let the voters decide. If passed, local districts would have the option of putting the measure on the 2002 ballot.
Both bills were heard Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee. This time, however, the AIDS and cancer patients who use marijuana to ease their pain were absent along with the Marijuana Policy Project. Committee members kept silent through the brief hearing.
If the issue is sent to the people, it will most likely pass. No medical marijuana ballot-initiative has ever failed. In fact, most passed with 60 percent support.
Furthermore, a recent University of Maryland, College Park survey, showed 73 percent of Marylanders believe terminally ill patients should be allowed to use marijuana without fear of arrest.
Valderrama said despite public support for the measure, the Legislature is reluctant to pass the bill because federal law prohibits marijuana use.
“(Legislators) are scared,” said Valderrama. “People are elected by districts. They have this feeling that in their district it’s not a very popular thing.”
Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project said legislators are simply waiting for changes in federal law.
“We don’t need to wait to change federal law to be able to change state law in Maryland,” Thomas said. “States are allowed to protect patients, regardless of what the federal government does.”
The Maryland State Medical Society opposed the bill because it would have placed doctors in the position of recommending illegal activity to patients.
Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Carroll, said the bill did not protect the marijuana supplier.
“It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Ferguson. “You can’t protect one side and not the other and have a consistent policy.”
Joyce Nalepka, president of America Cares in Silver Spring, said passing the bill would send the message that marijuana is medicine. There are other FDA- approved drugs that can achieve the same results, she said.
Murphy, who proposed the bill last year, said he thought this year would be different. He had twice as many co-sponsors as last year. He made changes to the bill to address opponents’ concerns, including specifying the amount of marijuana a person can possess and placing the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in charge of issuing identification cards to qualifying patients. Plus, the bill was cross-filed in the Senate.
“It was new and novel (last year) and something of this magnitude does take time to push through,” Murphy said.
Eight states allow medical use of marijuana – Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington state. But in Maryland, a person who uses marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation can be sent to prison for up to year and fined $1,000.
Maryland lawmakers are just not ready to change that.
“I think it shows that many legislators in Maryland are either confused or hypocritical,” said Thomas. “For them to say that doctors should be allowed to tell their patients to use marijuana, but then patients shouldn’t be allowed to use it, is really a bizarre double standard.”
For now, proponents of the legislation are finding solace in the progress the bill has made since last year.
Murphy said he or one of his co-sponsors will bring it back next year.
As for Thomas, he will spend the next year educating legislators about medical marijuana.
“We’re going to have other states passing such bills this year,” he said. “By the time next year comes along Maryland will realize that it’s just the normal thing to do. That’s what states do – protect patients.”