Money talks in drug bill struggle

Medical marijuana issue is high-stakes lobby battle

Supporters are well-financed

Measure passed House

Senate vote due shortly

March 26, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

With the Senate poised to vote on medical marijuana legislation as early as today, an aggressive lobbying battle is being waged in Annapolis between well-financed supporters of the proposal and dogged opponents who include the White House.

The debate makes Maryland the latest battleground in what has been a series of costly struggles across the nation on the issue, which is often viewed as an indicator of a state's willingness to loosen drug laws.

After making the passage of Maryland's bill a top priority this year, medical marijuana supporters have spent at least $40,000 trying to persuade legislators to drastically reduce penalties for sick patients found with the drug, said Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

"If you want to play to win, you got to spend the money," said Kampia, whose group is leading the effort.

The Washington-based group has hired Annapolis lobbyist Gilbert J. Genn, sent mailings to lawmakers and donated $10,000 to legislators. The organization has also reached out to voters in districts with undecided senators.

"They have an unbelievably strong lobbying group," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who reports receiving a letter from his "oldest surviving aunt" urging passage of the legislation.

Supporters had initially hoped the legislature would approve a bill to decriminalize the drug for patients who enroll in a state-run pilot program.

Last month. a House of Delegates committee replaced that plan with one that keeps the possession of marijuana a crime but sets a maximum $100 fine for people who are seriously ill.

The House approved the measure two weeks ago. Yesterday, the Senate gave an identical bill tentative approval, with a final vote scheduled for today.

Supporters say they have at least 22 of the 24 votes needed to win Senate approval. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a longtime supporter of medical marijuana, said yesterday he has not taken a formal position on the bill. He added that he is inclined to support it.

But a vocal band of opponents is refusing to concede defeat. "Parents should know there is a very effective, well-financed lobbying force trying to destroy all drug laws in this country," said Joyce Nalepka, founder of Drug-Free Kids: America's Challenge.

Nalepka, a Silver Spring resident, has been to the State House almost daily decrying medical marijuana as "a hoax." She calls it the first step toward all-out drug legalization.

Yesterday, Nalepka set up a television in Lawyers Mall and showed a videotape that she said proved her point. The tape showed several leading medical marijuana advocates admitting they use the drug for nonmedicinal purposes.

Nalepka, who has challenged Ehrlich to a debate on the issue, has also been telling lawmakers that Kampia was arrested 14 years ago for possessing 96 marijuana plants in college.

Kampia, who has been to Annapolis to lobby and testify in support of the bill, acknowledged yesterday that he was convicted of marijuana possession in 1989 and spent three months in jail.

Nalepka's campaign was boosted Monday when White House drug czar John P. Walters and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings announced their strong opposition to the bill.

Miller said "hundreds" of letters supporting the proposal have been sent to senators. He suspects advocacy groups such as the Maryland Policy Project are orchestrating the letters. "Their funding mechanism is certainly very effective," he said.

Some of the money for the effort is coming from wealthy individuals who have led -- and bankrolled -- efforts to change drug laws in at least a dozen other states.

Peter B. Lewis, a Cleveland businessman who has spent more than $1 million on similar efforts nationwide, has donated thousands to Maryland legislators in the past six months, according to campaign finance records.

That includes $750 to each of the two Baltimore County Democrats who are the main sponsors of the proposal, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger and Del. Dan K. Morhaim.

In other states, Lewis often teams with billionaire George Soros and John Sperling, an Arizona businessman, to back ballot initiatives.

The three men spent more than $1 million on an Arizona ballot measure last year, according to National Families Action, a Georgia-based group opposed to medical marijuana.

But Kampia said Maryland represents a new strategy for medical marijuana supporters, who think it is more cost-effective to focus on legislatures instead of costly ballot initiatives.

Nalepka said she will stick to the old-fashioned -- and cheaper -- lobbying style: "We will gather the names of people who voted to pass this and then try to publicize it to voters."

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m.Senate meets, Senate chamber.

10 a.m.House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m.House Ways and Means Committee, hearing on bill to set minimum prices for alcoholic drinks at slots casinos, Room 110, Lowe House Office Building.

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