As a polio survivor who advocates for (and uses) medical marijuana, I was cautiously optimistic that the medical marijuana law proposed by Del. Dan Morhaim and Sen. David Brinkley (HB 291 & SB 308) would come out of the Health and Government Operations and Judiciary committees of the legislature with favorable reports. Before Delegate Morhaim began his bill presentation on Monday, that sense of hope was waning. Optimism among medical marijuana supporters continued to wane as the afternoon wore on.
One problem was a discrepancy between departments over the cost of the program — but that's an issue that can be worked out. For me and others at the hearing, the biggest disappointment was the announcement by Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, that his department opposes the law. I believe this is because Dr. Sharfstein, a recent top official of the Food and Drug Administration, has brought with him the FDA mindset of, "If we didn't approve it, than it cannot be safe." He is calling for more study of the issue.
The problem with more empirical studies is that such studies are bogged down in the alphabet soup that is our federal government. In 2007, an administrative law judge with the Drug Enforcement Administration issued an order and recommendation in favor Professor Lyle Craker of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is trying to do the needed empirical research. But the DEA and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have not abided by the ruling — and the national institute controls the supply of marijuana for research. How does Dr. Sharfstein propose to do the research?
It is time to allow patients in Maryland to use marijuana for medicinal purposes without fear of arrest and prosecution under Maryland law. The empirical evidence that Dr. Sharfstein calls for is not forthcoming. We must move forward based on the best anecdotal evidence that is available.
The Compassionate Investigational New Drug program is in its 33rd year, and to date there have been no adverse health effects from daily cannabis use by the participants. These patients get their marijuana from a National Institute on Drug Abuse facility. Reached for comment at his office in Florida, where he is a successful stockbroker, Irv Rosenfeld, a participant in the program since 1982, had this to say: "As the longest surviving member of the federal medical cannabis patients, I can state for a fact that all the patients are or have been medically improved because of our medicine. The American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association sanctions my organization, Patients Out of Time, as the only entity in the United States to teach doctors and nurses about medical cannabis and receive continuing education credits. They would not be doing this if they did not recognize cannabis as a medicine."
I and many other medical marijuana activists support the adoption of a medical marijuana program modeled after Rhode Island's. This would be similar to a bill proposed by Sen. Lisa Gladden in 2007. Senator Gladden is dealing with multiple sclerosis, a disease for which medicinal use of marijuana is often recommended. There were numerous MS patients to testify on Monday, and they represented some of the more gut-wrenching testimony of the afternoon.
Rhode Island allows for personal cultivation and caregiver/patient co-ops. Rhode Island law also allows for what they call "compassion centers," which are larger co-ops. The goal is to make it illegal to possess "black market" cannabis but legal to possess marijuana grown specifically for medicinal purposes.
We can set a reasonable time limit to evaluate a system of personal cultivation and primary caregiver co-ops. The law should allow for "primary caregivers" to care for up to five patients. This is to ensure that if one caregiver cannot supply the patient with finished medicine, the patient can than go to a secondary caregiver. The same documented doctor-patient relationship called for in SB 308 and HB 291 can govern who participates in the program. This smaller-scale "trial program" can then be evaluated over a period of a few years.
If the program is successful, we can then look to enlarge it to include some of the bill sponsors' ideas on cultivation and distribution. With so many Marylanders suffering, why not at least give it a try?
Barry Considine, an activist and writer who lives in Halethorpe, maintains the blog Casey's Dream (www.caseysdream.blogspot.com). His e-mail is email@example.com.