Marijuana conundrum

Our view: We don't want to emulate California's freewheeling medical cannabis program, but doctors, not judges, should decide when a drug is medically necessary

February 01, 2010

Everyone has heard the horror stories from California, which after passing a 1996 law legalizing the medical use of marijuana for patients with cancer and other serious illnesses found itself awash in pot shops and physicians who seemed all too eager to hand out cannabis prescriptions to anyone who asked, regardless of the complaint. California is belatedly moving to correct the worst abuses of that law, but the sheer number of loosely regulated pot dispensaries and pharmacies that sprang up after its passage is making reform an uphill struggle.

We certainly don't want to see California's experience replicated in Maryland, where a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical use is pending in the General Assembly this year. Opinion remains divided among the medical community over the potential therapeutic benefits and risks of medical marijuana. Yet there's enough anecdotal and other evidence suggesting it can ease the suffering of some patients diagnosed with chronic and terminal illnesses that the idea shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Maryland already acknowledges - and in some ways actually encourages - this ambivalence. The state's current law on the subject, passed six years ago, doesn't explicitly exempt the medical use of marijuana from criminal prosecution, but it does allow people accused of possessing small quantities of the drug to claim "medical necessity" as a defense. If a judge accepts their claim, they can get off with a fine not exceeding $100 - less than some parking tickets.

The problem with the current statute, of course, is that it still forces people who do have a genuine medical necessity to break the law - and risk being slapped with a criminal record - simply in order to get the treatment they need. And it makes judges, rather than doctors, the ultimate arbiters of what is medically necessary.

That's unacceptable, especially given last year's decision by the Justice Department to stop aggressively pursuing medical marijuana patients in the 14 states that have laws allowing the drug's use. We always thought the Bush administration's claim that medical marijuana was a mortal threat to the republic was overblown. Doctors routinely prescribe far more potent medications to patients - including derivatives of cocaine - and the country hasn't collapsed.

The legislation proposed by Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Republican Sen. David Brinkley of Frederick would allow patients with debilitating illnesses such as seizures, severe chronic pain or severe nausea as a result of cancer treatment to register with the state and to purchase marijuana from state-licensed dispensaries and pharmacies. Mr. Morhaim, an internist and emergency medical physician, says the goal is to make medical marijuana as readily available as other medications currently in use by physicians, and with the same legal and medical safeguards.

To avoid the problems of the California law, the bill would require patients to get approval only from doctors with whom they have a long-standing relationship, and it would also prohibit them from growing marijuana on their own. As long as the controls are in place to restrict purchases to patients with valid prescriptions at authorized dispensaries and pharmacies, we see little chance of this turning into a California-style debacle or even the opening skirmish in a full-scale legalization campaign.

No one would deny a seriously ill patient the benefits of anesthesia during major surgery, or arrest him or her for taking painkillers afterward. To the extent that medical marijuana holds the potential to provide a similar therapeutic benefit, why should anyone have to risk going to jail for taking a medication that his or her doctor has decided is medically necessary?

Readers respond
Unfortunately, we are up against a group of legislators who believe in a police state. I will bet you every penny I have, that these Delegates will place unnecessary burdens on obtaining medical marijuana.


It is foolish to restrict patients from growing their own. Medical marijuana is not cheap, and unless the state can sell it for cost, many patients won't be able to afford it.


Just legalize it. The time has come...


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