GOP leaders press Ehrlich to veto medical marijuana

Rethink longtime support, White House, others urge

April 04, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The Bush administration and other top national Republicans are heavily pressuring Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to veto a proposal that would drastically reduce penalties for terminally ill patients who smoke marijuana to ease pain.

In recent days, several Republican officials have urged Ehrlich to reconsider his longtime support of medical marijuana, which has become one of the few issues that divide the state GOP.

Though Ehrlich, a Republican, has indicated a willingness to consider the bill, some of his advisers are worried about a public split with the White House.

There are signs that Ehrlich is trying to avoid the issue. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, a prominent Republican, is having trouble getting his phone calls to the governor returned.

Yesterday, John P. Walters, the White House drug policy coordinator, used a speech in Baltimore to criticize proponents of medical marijuana, saying they had "conned" the Maryland General Assembly into supporting the measure.

He warned of the risk of subjecting the state to lawsuits and increased drug abuse if the bill becomes law.

"We stand in the city that I believe has suffered more from drug abuse and addiction than any city in the United States," Walters said while attending a drug-prevention conference downtown. "It is an outrage that, in this state, the legalizers would come here to try to put additional people in harm's way."

Ehrlich, who co-sponsored medical marijuana legislation in Congress, is unfazed by Walters' warnings.

"I have always taken pride in my independent streak," Ehrlich said. "I respect those guys. They have a legitimate point of view, but we have a point of view too. ... I can take some pressure."

The state House and Senate have approved identical bills that would establish a maximum $100 fine for the very sick who are arrested for possessing marijuana. The current penalty is up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. The legislation will go to the governor once one chamber passes the other's bill.

Medical marijuana advocates, who spent more than $40,000 to lobby for the bill's approval, argue that smoking marijuana can be a dying patient's last hope of curbing pain.

Opponents, who counter that there is little scientific evidence to back the claims of pain relief, hope Ehrlich will help quash the medical marijuana movement before it spreads further. Eight states offer some form of legal protection to terminally ill patients who use marijuana, though federal drug laws still apply.

Bennett, who held the same post under former President George Bush, tried unsuccessfully last week to call Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to urge them to oppose the legislation. He plans to write to Ehrlich and Steele to express his opposition.

"This isn't about compassion," Bennett said in an interview yesterday. "This is about making marijuana more available. This is softening the public's image of marijuana."

Several Republican congressmen peppered Ehrlich with questions about his stance when the governor was on Capitol Hill last week.

Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said the congressmen asked, "Are you really going to sign a marijuana bill?"

In the past, Ehrlich has indicated that his position transcends party politics because he watched his brother-in-law die of cancer two years ago.

"I think most people can discern a clear difference between legalizing substances that wreck lives as opposed to a life situation where someone is doing something because of severe pain," Ehrlich said.

It appears that the governor is inching closer to supporting the bill, but some members of his administration say it is by no means a certainty.

Administration officials say some top Ehrlich advisers might try to persuade the governor to veto the proposal to avoid a dispute with White House allies.

"I hope anybody who can help to explain the legalities here and the dangers of this bill will contact the governor," said Walters, who added that his office is making an unprecedented push to persuade Ehrlich to veto it.

Walters is urging the governor to wait for further research on ways to turn marijuana into a safe, federally approved prescription drug.

If Maryland doesn't wait, Walters said, it could face lawsuits from those injured by marijuana, such as victims of car accidents caused by users of the drug.

"If the state puts the taxpayer and the government on the hook, it will probably risk the consequences from those who are harmed who say you are a party to that," Walters said during the Dr. Lonnie E. Mitchell National Historic Black Colleges and Universities Substance Abuse Conference.

Some Maryland Republicans are outraged that the White House is trying to derail the legislation, calling it a slap at Bush's promise of "compassionate conservatism."

"In this war on Iraq, you see all this concern for civilians," said former Republican Del. Donald H. Murphy of Baltimore County. "Why in this war on drugs doesn't the drug czar have this same concern for the innocent and sick."

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