At the Statehouse: Medical Marijuana Moving in Maryland and Vermont 2/22/02

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Even as the DEA was raiding medical marijuana providers in California, the medical marijuana movement was threatening to spread to at least two more states. Medical marijuana legislation is moving on the East Coast, with strong efforts backed by the Marijuana Policy Project under way in both Maryland and Vermont.

In Vermont, state Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington, a member of the Progressive Party) introduced H. 645 on January 30. Under that bill's provisions, certified medical marijuana users and their primary caregivers would be allowed to possess three ounces of prepared marijuana, three mature plants, and four seedlings. Such persons would be exempt from criminal prosecution under the state's marijuana laws. The bill would also allow for the creation of state-sanctioned nonprofit groups to grow medical marijuana for multiple patients, and it would provide for a medical defense in the event that someone is charged under the marijuana laws (http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2002/bills/intro/H-645.HTM).

Zuckerman's bill is also carefully crafted to address law enforcement concerns. Medical marijuana protections would not apply if its use "endangers the health or well-being of another person," so no driving or operating heavy equipment under the influence would be allowed. Neither would lighting up in school buses or public buses, at work (unless okayed by the employer), at school, in jail or prison, or at public parks, beaches, and recreation centers. Falsely claiming a medical marijuana exemption would be a misdemeanor with a $500 fine. And the bill adds for good measure that "the use of marijuana by a qualifying patient, primary caregiver, or any other person for purposes other than medical use" remains a crime.

The bill had its first hearing before the House Judiciary Committee last Friday, with more hearings scheduled for today. Bill sponsor Zuckerman led off the testimony. "Not just anyone can use this; you need it based on a recommendation of a doctor," Zuckerman told the committee. "There are a number of debilitating medical conditions... and for some this is the only way they have to alleviate their symptoms."

The bill lists as qualifying diseases cancer, glaucoma, and HIV/AIDS and their treatments, as well as "a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following: cachexia or wasting syndrome; severe pain; severe nausea; seizures, including those characteristic of epilepsy; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis or Crohn's disease."

Zuckerman cited laws on the books in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington, assuring worried lawmakers that the federal government had not cracked down on any of the states for passing such laws.

Although the bill is opposed by Republican Gov. Howard Dean, it has the public support of more than 40 members of the House who signed on as cosponsors, as well as some Senate leaders. "Personally I think it's a thoughtful bill," said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, (D-Windham). "For many people, it can be the difference between living a tolerable life and living an intolerable life," he told the Rutland Herald.

The measure also appears to have broad public support in the Green Mountain state. A poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project and conducted by the Lucas Organization on February 9 and 10 found that 75% of Vermonters "support changing the law to allow people with cancer, AIDS, and other serious illnesses to use and grow their own marijuana for medical purposes, if they have the approval of their physicians."

Although a similar effort failed in the Vermont legislature last year, the bill's backers are optimistic. "We are pegging Vermont as the state most likely to pass a medical marijuana bill this year," said MPP spokesman Bruce Mirken in a prepared statement.

A few hundred miles to the south, lawmakers and medical marijuana advocates in Maryland are hoping the third time is the charm. After being defeated in two previous session, medical marijuana backers have introduced three separate bills on the topic, hoping at least one of them passes. Delegate Don Murphy (R-Catonsville) has introduced for the third year in a row the Darrell Putman Compassionate Use Act, which would provide legal protection for patients who use medical marijuana with their doctors' approval. Delegate Dana Dembrow (D-Silver Spring) has introduced a companion bill which would provide for a medical defense against marijuana charges. And Delegate Thomas Hutchins (D-Charles County) has introduced a third bill that would allow a judge to consider medical use when sentencing someone on a possession conviction.

Momentum has been building, with 50 delegates cosponsoring the Murphy bill and recent polling showing public support. Eight of Murphy's cosponsors sit on the House Judiciary Committee, where it needs 12 votes to pass. At a February 7 press conference, delegates sounded the battle cry. "I am confident we will do better this year," said Murphy. "Cancer patients and AIDS patients can't afford to wait another year."

"This is a pro-life bill," Delegate Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel) added. "This is one way to make sure people at the end of their life don't have to suffer."

"If doctors can prescribe codeine and morphine, then marijuana should not be a problem," said Delegate Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore).

But House Judiciary Committee chair Tim Ferguson (R-Taylorsville) will be an obstacle. Ferguson, long an opponent of medical marijuana, recently reiterated his opposition in a February 18 letter to the Frederick News Post. Writing that "nobody in law enforcement wants this headache," Ferguson cited federal opposition to medical marijuana and the possibility that "drug dealers" would take advantage of such a law. "If anyone really believes that drug dealers won't demand protection under the medical marijuana state statutes, just because the bill says so, they are naive. They will cry out for protection and eventually some liberal judge will throw the case out. Then what do we do with the state laws without federal laws to fall back on?"

Observers in Annapolis report, however, that should the bills get by Ferguson and win approval in the House of Delegates, the Senate could be a tougher nut to crack. But Murphy pointed to January's Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications poll showing voters would support candidates who support medical marijuana. "There are some senators who are going to have to take a look at that poll," Murphy said. "If we can't convince them now, we're going to have to convince them in November."

The texts of the three Maryland bills are available online at:
http://mlis.state.md.us/2002rs/billfile/hb1222.htm
http://mlis.state.md.us/2002rs/billfile/hb0504.htm
http://mlis.state.md.us/2002rs/billfile/HB0024.htm

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Issue #225, 2/22/02 Editorial: Costs and Consequences | Lies, Damn Lies, and "The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-1998" | New Mexico Post-Mortem: Reformers Differ on What Went Right, What Went Wrong | Britain: Parliamentary Committee Will Recommend Cannabis Decrim, Ecstasy Down-Scheduling, More Heroin Prescriptions | Dutch to Consider Prescription Heroin for Hard Cases, Study Results Lay Groundwork for Move | New Study Provides First Comprehensive Report on Drug Laws in All 50 States and DC, Variations Abound | At the Statehouse: Medical Marijuana Moving in Maryland and Vermont | Libertarian Party Ad Campaign Takes on Drug Terror Link | Federal Drug Office Accused of "Enron-Style Accounting" in New National Drug Budget Reporting | News Links: Bolivia and Colombia, California Medical Marijuana, Drug-Terror Ad Parody | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, Virginia | The Reformer's Calendar
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