Medical marijuana gets nod of Ehrlich

Governor says he's likely to back decriminalization

Would be for use by terminally ill

Announcement gives impetus to Assembly bills

January 17, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he would likely back decriminalizing marijuana for terminally ill patients, a stance that is expected to give momentum to the issue this year in the General Assembly.

Ehrlich said he has been a longtime supporter of so-called medical marijuana, including co-sponsoring a bill last year in Congress that would have allowed states to liberalize drug laws so terminally ill patients could use the drug.

"I am predisposed to support it. It gets personal" for himself and his wife, Ehrlich said in an interview. "We saw a very, very strong person taken down inch by inch" by cancer, referring to a relative whom he declined to identify.

The governor said he will not make medical marijuana one of his legislative priorities this year, but several lawmakers say they plan to push the issue.

Last year, the House of Delegates easily approved a bill that would have all-but decriminalized medical marijuana by establishing a maximum $100 fine and no jail time for terminal patients caught with marijuana.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected it by one vote.

This year, several legislators are preparing to introduce at least two bills in hopes something will pass. Sen. David R. Brinkley - a Frederick County Republican who won his seat last year after campaigning on his support for medical marijuana - said he plans to introduce a bill similar to one defeated last year in the Senate.

"It is not to mitigate or downplay the drug crisis in this country, but it is rather odd physicians can prescribe medications that are addictive and can kill people, but can't for marijuana," said Brinkley.

Del. Daniel K. Morheim, a Baltimore County Democrat and the only medical doctor in the House of Delegates, said he also plans to introduce a bill that would start a state "medical marijuana pilot program."

Under Morheim's proposal, patients who receive recommendations from two doctors could use marijuana if they register with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The state, which would supply the marijuana, would keep data on patients' medical progress.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and a medical doctor, said he is inclined to oppose medical marijuana proposals.

He said the issue should be handled at the federal level, and that he has yet to see evidence that terminally ill marijuana users are being jailed. "This would send a message that would be an appropriate, that this is a good drug," Harris said.

Yet, with Ehrlich's backing, and with a new chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings, supporters of the proposal are hoping to advance the issue this year.

The chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said yesterday that he is "sympathetic" to the cause, but needs more information.

"I think we have reached a critical mass in Maryland, and as long as the new legislators understand the science and politics of medical marijuana, one of these bills will pass," said former Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Baltimore County Republican who sponsored legislation on the issue for three years.

Paul Gessing, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, said Maryland is one of five states the group has targeted this year to pass medical marijuana bills.

Eight states have enacted such legislation, but the federal government is trying to prevent many of the laws from being implemented.

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