Medical marijuana still beyond reach in Maryland

Patients, lawmakers say state law has done nothing to improve access to drug

  • Barry Considine, 60, smokes marijuana to ease the pain of post-polio syndrome, the muscle weakness that afflicts polio victims as they age and now requires him to use a wheelchair.
Barry Considine, 60, smokes marijuana to ease the pain of post-polio… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
January 28, 2014|By Jean Marbella, Justin George and Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

Barry Considine still has to buy marijuana illegally, as he has since he first asked around a biker bar for it to help treat his post-polio syndrome. Ken Kopper still fears another possession arrest for using it to ease chronic pain resulting from a couple of car accidents.

And Gail Rand still can only watch from afar as a boy in Colorado who has the same form of epilepsy as her 4-year-old son has become seizure-free after regularly ingesting an oil derived from marijuana.

"There's a plant out there that can help my son, and he can't get it," said Rand, whose son Logan has an average of 10 seizures a day. "I'm not willing to give up. Something has to help my child."

Patients hoping to legally use medical marijuana in Maryland had appeared closer than ever last year, when state legislators approved its distribution through medical centers conducting research on the drug. But regulations have not yet been approved for the program and no hospitals have come forth to participate, leaving patients in the same position they were in before the law was passed.

"The reality is: It's not working, it's not going to work," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the medical marijuana bill last year.

Morhaim said that even last year, it was clear medical centers were tepid at best about committing to the program. And after discussing the issue with several institutions over the past year, he sees no sign that they're warming to the idea.

"I was hoping that they would change their minds," he said. "It's clear that they won't."

Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and Sinai Hospital say they're still evaluating their positions or waiting to see the state's regulations before making a final decision.

"Johns Hopkins is open to a conversation with the state about how a medical marijuana program could be implemented, but right now, it would be premature to commit to administering or participating in such a program," Kim Hoppe, a Hopkins spokeswoman said.

Another potential participant, MedStar Health, "is not considering participating in the medical marijuana program in Maryland," said spokeswoman Ann C. Nickels. She declined to elaborate.

Some powerful lawmakers suggest in private that the state push public universities to embrace their role in helping the state's sick get medical marijuana. Others plan to marshal support to rewrite the law, expanding access to the drug beyond research centers.

Morhaim, the General Assembly's only physician, expects to introduce a bill this week allowing physicians affiliated with a hospital or university to recommend marijuana to patients — a plan that would bypass academic centers and greatly increase the number of doctors who can beome involved, he said.

Those who support medical marijuana have had an uphill battle in Maryland — in the past, Gov. Martin O'Malley has opposed measures that he said would put the state in violation of federal law. But advocates find hope in something O'Malley said at the Annapolis summit on the opening day of the legislative session — in response to a question from Rand, who had noted the "limitations" of the current law and that her son still had no access to a drug that might ease his epilepsy.

"Our hope is if there's something that's made this too cumbersome to move it forward in the context of medical marijuana, we can fix that this legislative session," O'Malley said. "If we need to fix it … we can take advantage of these next 90 days and do that."

Rand, who lives in Annapolis, is particularly interested in gaining access to a strain of marijuana known as "Charlotte's Web," which is cultivated in Colorado and used by a number of children suffering from epilepsy. It is low in THC, which produces the marijuana high, and some parents and doctors say an oil extracted from it has greatly reduced or even stopped epileptic seizures in children.

"These kids are not getting high," Rand said. "They aren't smoking a joint."

Logan's seizures can sometimes be violent, causing him to fall and injure himself as he did recently, requiring a trip to the emergency room for stitches, Rand said. Doctors have tried various anti-seizure medications, often powerful and with side effects, but only one has proved even moderately effective, she said.

According to published research, there is anecdotal evidence that marijuana can successfully reduce seizures, but more studies need to be done on the issue.

Given that research facilities in Maryland appear reluctant to participate in the state's medical marijuana program, Rand hopes lawmakers will consider other ways to get the drug to patients. "I'd like to be able to get it from a dispensary," said Rand, referring to the way other states handle medical marijuana.

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