Medical pot backers hail vote

Proponents see progress in state Senate's approval

April 11, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

The Maryland Senate voted 35-12 on Saturday to give sick people access to marijuana, sending a strong message that the upper chamber is serious about the controversial idea.

House leaders have said they will not take up the measure this year. The legislature's 90-day session ends on Monday.

Nevertheless, advocates hailed the Senate vote as a victory. "We are very happy," said Mike Meno, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization promoting medical use of pot. "To vote by such a margin means that the Senate is in line with public sentiment nationally and here in Maryland."

Senators from both parties supported the measure, which builds on a Maryland law passed in 2003 that allows leniency to defendants charged with marijuana possession if they can show a medical need.

"I think the Senate recognized the plight of people who have sick and chronic conditions," said Sen. David Brinkley, one of the lead sponsors and two-time cancer survivor. The Western Maryland Republican said he views the issue as a libertarian cause.

Fourteen states allow medical use of marijuana. Private dispensaries have become a cottage industry in California and Colorado, prompting a backlash from citizens who view the policy as de facto legalization. The Obama administration had signaled that federal authorities would not crack down on medical uses, though there have been federal raids in some states.

Sponsors said the Maryland bill was crafted to avoid the criticism that has arisen in other states. The plan would require patients to have a long-standing relationship with the prescribing doctor and requiring the state to license any dispensaries.

Opponents in the Senate included Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who views marijuana as a "gateway drug" and worries about heading down a path toward full legalization. "It is a terrible idea," he said.

The two doctors in the General Assembly have been split on the issue. Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County anesthesiologist who is running for Congress, said he'd be more likely to support the measure if the number of recipients were capped. Harris offered several changes to the legislation, but they were rejected.

Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and emergency room doctor, helped to write the bill saying he consulted with the Maryland State Police. He said he was "very excited" about Senate passage and said he hopes Saturday's action "prompts the House to take a fresh look at it." Both chambers met for hours Saturday, passing other key measures:

• The House approved the final version of the state's $13 billion spending plan, which already has Senate approval.

• The House gave preliminary approval to a 3-percent tuition cap at public universities.

• The Senate delayed a vote on a ban on reading text messages while driving.

• The Senate amended a House-passed slots bill to allow card games at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, a measure the House opposes.

• The Senate gave final approval to a bill allowing a judge to shield from public databases records of unsuccessful attempts for peace orders or protective orders.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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