Medical marijuana

Our view: Maryland is sending mixed messages about the use of marijuana for people with serious illnesses who are in need of relief

March 30, 2009

For patients suffering from cancer and other debilitating illnesses, the medical use of marijuana can relieve symptoms such as pain, inflammation and nausea in many cases. Currently, 13 states, including California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Rhode Island and Vermont, allow the medical use marijuana with a doctor's approval or certification. And although possession of the drug remains illegal under federal law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the Justice Department will no longer go after small dispensaries that sell cannabis for medical use so long as they comply with state laws.

For all these reasons, a bill sponsored by Montgomery County Del. Henry B. Heller that would require the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to rethink Maryland's policy on medical marijuana deserves serious consideration.

Delegate Heller's bill does not propose legalizing marijuana; it would not give drug dealers a license to peddle their wares. Rather, it would create a task force of health professionals to study the legal and practical implications of allowing marijuana to be used solely for medical purposes. At the very least, it would encourage officials to confront the glaring inconsistencies in state law so that patients, physicians and operators of medical marijuana dispensaries would know exactly where they stood.

Right now, the state is sending mixed signals about the legality of marijuana for medical use. In 2003, the General Assembly sharply reduced penalties for patients convicted of marijuana possession if they could prove a medical necessity in court. But people with serious illnesses can still be arrested and fined up to $100 for possession, even if they prove a medical necessity. Mr. Heller says the 2003 law has had the unintended consequence of giving people a "false sense of security." He cites constituents in a senior citizens home who say they want to use marijuana to relieve symptoms of major illnesses but don't want to break the law.

As Maryland's population ages and more people experience chronic health problems that could be successfully treated with medical marijuana, state officials will need to draw a bright line between legal and illegal use of the drug that sends a consistent message to the public. The study proposed by Delegate Heller is a first step toward a resolution of this matter.

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