Medical marijuana bill gains momentum

But if approved, measure would clash with federal drug enforcement

February 27, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Proponents of legalizing marijuana for terminally ill patients believe they have the momentum this year to pass a General Assembly bill creating a state-run program to oversee use of the drug.

Maryland's attempt to decriminalize the drug, however, places the state at odds with Bush administration officials, who have tried to communicate their disapproval to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

And a federal drug official warned yesterday that Maryland patients possessing the drug could be arrested under federal law.

The Darrell Putman Medical Research Act -- named after a Howard County man who used the drug before dying of cancer -- would allow sick patients to grow up to seven marijuana plants for personal use if they have a doctors recommendation.

The patients would first have to register with the State Board of Physicians Quality Assurance, which would then monitor the patients and research the drug's effects.

"People don't do this for recreational use," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican who has received a diagnosis of cancer. "People do it out of necessity because they are sick."

Brinkley is one of 19 senators and 56 delegates to cosponsor the bill, which if passed would make Maryland the 10th state in the country to approve some form of medical marijuana legislation.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he did not support medical marijuana legislation last year, but is open to the idea this year if patients have proper physician oversight.

Ehrlich generally supports medical marijuana -- in part because his brother-in-law died of cancer two years ago -- but the governor has yet to take a formal position on this legislation.

Still, the General Assembly's push for the proposal sets the stage for a potential showdown with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bush administration.

"What some states have done is circumvent the process -- a process that relies on the medical and scientific community -- and left it up to medicine by referendum," said Will Glaspy, a DEA spokesman in Washington. "Until Congress changes the federal law, the DEA has the responsibility for carrying out our duties as indicated in federal drug laws."

In California, which has had a medical marijuana law on the books since 1996, the DEA has raided some centers that distribute the drug to patients.

Dr. Andrea Barthwell, a deputy director for the Office of White House Drug Policy, said two weeks ago she tried to convey her office's concerns to Ehrlich, but he "suddenly cut the meeting short when the issue came up."

"The fact there are adults that continue to advance this discussion under the guise of medicine or compassion ... does disturb me," said Barthwell, who said only the federal government can approve new medications.

But at a hearing yesterday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, supporters of the proposal and patients who use marijuana said they are unfazed by federal laws.

"I care about caring for my family and taking care of my children and giving them the best, and I can't do that when I am sick," said Erin Hildebrandt, a 32-year-old mother of five children who uses marijuana to relieve her Crohn's disease.

Lawrence Silberman, 51, who has received a diagnosis of lymphoma, testified: "Marijuana saved my life."

A few people, however, spoke against the legislation. The opponents -- including the Maryland State Medical Society -- told senators that science has yet to prove the benefits of using marijuana as a medicine. They also fear it will send the wrong message to children.

"Medical marijuana is a hoax perpetrated on good people who wish to aid the sick and dying by pro-drug activists who wish to give marijuana a good name," Carolyn W. Burns, vice president of Drug Free Kids: America's Challenge, said in written testimony.

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