Sun's position on medical marijuana is misguided and heartless

January 05, 2012

The Sun's editorial on medical marijuana is misguided at best and heartless at worst ("Md. should go slow on medical marijuana," Jan. 3). It's clear that the reports of the medical marijuana work group were not reviewed carefully, and so the editorial fell prey to unfair and inaccurate characterizations.

Both plans recommended by the work group are "go-slow" approaches. One only has to view the experiences in other states, like California or Colorado, to see what "go-fast" looks like. Those of us who have proposed the medical use of marijuana in Maryland have studied the experiences in those states, and nothing in our plan is like that. We have also looked at the more balanced approaches adopted in our neighbor states of New Jersey and Delaware and learned from them as well.

The editorial's statement that our plan would "immediately have given doctors wide latitude to prescribe the drug" is completely wrong. First, nothing would happen immediately because a new oversight board (either quasi-independent or under the auspices of the Department of Health) would set up various parameters for use. Second, any physician who would want to recommend (the use of the word "prescribe" shows the Sun's unfamiliarity with the issue, as no physician can "prescribe" medical marijuana) would first need to be approved by this board and complete a comprehensive training program, and then provide full clinical information about any patient, the reasons for use, response, side-effects, etc. Third, there would not be "wide availability" as stated, but rather carefully monitored use. Further, all the other concerns raised by The Sun are all addressed by strict oversight and tracking, background checks on all involved, and frequent reports. These are detailed in our plan.

There are several problems with the approach The Sun mistakenly prefers. First, it requires all physicians who might consider recommending medical marijuana to work at academic research institutions with physician residency training programs. This would leave out many perfectly competent and caring physicians currently working at clinics and offices throughout the state (e.g. Anne Arundel, Frederick, Carroll and Harford counties, the Eastern Shore, Western Maryland, and many in Baltimore City and County) from participating on behalf of their patients.

Under our plan, these physicians would still be able to participate, but only after successfully completing a training program and being approved by the oversight board. Second, the plan only allows patients to obtain marijuana distributed directly through academic medical centers like Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland. Given that it is a federal crime to distribute marijuana, it is highly unlikely that such centers would jeopardize substantial federal funding by illegally dispensing marijuana, thereby failing to achieve the work group's primary objective to "facilitate patient access to marijuana for medical purposes." Our plan allows for a tightly controlled, highly structured system of growing and distribution (including enhanced criminal penalties for any violators) that is nonetheless feasible and realistic.

The Sun writes, "there is precious little in the way of vigorous scientific study" about medical marijuana. In fact, a quick review of the medical literature would reveal that thousands of studies have been done. We agree that much more research is needed, but let's also acknowledge that the FDA has itself made numerous mistakes: just look at Vioxx or Nesiritide-Natrecor, both billion-dollar FDA goofs that caused irreparable patient harm.

Health Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein's plan might look like it would do something. The reality is that it would do nothing, except continue a flawed status quo. It reflects a basic distrust and disrespect of Maryland's physicians and patients. In practice, it does not recognize that there are patients who — after all conventional treatments have failed (another provision of our approach) — could get some relief from serious symptoms. It won't even allow for those who are near death and in hospice programs to get medical marijuana. And that's just heartless.

Medical marijuana legislation will be introduced again on a bi-partisan basis. We urge Marylanders to read the bills carefully, and we think they will find that our responsible, sensible, and practical "go-slow" approach is far better than any others.

Del. Dan Morhaim and Sen. David Brinkley, Annapolis

Dr. Morhaim, a Democrat, represents the 11th District in Baltimore County; Mr. Brinkley, a Republican, represents the 4th in Frederick County.

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