Health chief opposes medical marijuana bill

Sharfstein urges more cautious approach

February 28, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

The chief of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene testified Monday against a bill that would legalize medical marijuana, potentially dooming a plan that had been on track to pass the General Assembly this year.

The proposal, which cleared the Senate last year and attracted more than 60 House co-sponsors this year, would enable doctors to prescribe marijuana for patients with chronic pain or diseases and establish a tightly controlled network of state-registered growers and dispensaries.

But Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who took over the health department in January, said the legislation does not "provide meaningful limits" on when doctors could prescribe marijuana and could cost millions to implement.

Instead, Sharfstein proposed a more measured first step. If a committee of lawmakers, health and law enforcement officials, and interested parties agree, Maryland would mimic a research program recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. That would mean far more limited access to medical marijuana than under the General Assembly's legislation.

Del. Dan Morhaim, the House sponsor of the medical marijuana bill and the only physician serving in the legislature, agreed to Sharfstein's idea. The discussion came as two House committees heard testimony from many cancer patients, doctors and medical marijuana advocates who support Morhaim's bill.

Last year, under then-Secretary John Colmers, the department took no official position on Morhaim's bill but supported the concept of it, the agency spokesman said.

Sharfstein, a former top official with the Food and Drug Administration appointed to the state health post this year by Gov. Martin O'Malley, testified that his analysis of the legislation led him to conclude it is too broadly written. He also said there's no scientific consensus on medical marijuana.

While many medical organizations support additional research of medical marijuana, he said, "they have not supported state efforts to legalize" it.

Fifteen states, most recently Arizona, and the District of Columbia allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana.

Some lawmakers at the hearing also expressed concerns that until the federal government reclassifies marijuana, states are breaking the law by implementing any medical marijuana program. And before Sharfstein testified, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, wondered whether Morhaim's bill would permit someone with back pain or other less-severe conditions to use marijuana. Morhaim stressed that a doctor would need to make that determination.

Responding to Sharfstein's testimony, Morhaim said he would work with the health department to either amend his bill to conform to the Institute of Medicine recommendations or continue studying the issue.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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