Medical marijuana is still alive in Maryland as this issue of the Week Online goes to press. The same House Judiciary Committee that two weeks ago voted 11 to 7 against a bill proposed by conservative Republican Senator Don Murphy that would have protected patients suffering from diseases like AIDS and cancer from arrest is poised to vote on a slightly different bill.
The new bill, sponsored by Del David Valderrama, a Democrat, was originally less ambitious in its scope than the proposal that failed earlier this month. Initially, the bill called for changing state law to allow local jurisdictions to approve their own medical marijuana measures if they chose to do so. But before that version of the bill made it to committee, Valderamma amended it to look more like Murphy's bill, with a few key exceptions.
The major difference in Valderrama's bill, Murphy told The Week Online, is that voters in local jurisdictions would have the opportunity to opt out of the state medical marijuana law. This way, "If the people of Baltimore County decide they're against medical marijuana, they can put a measure on the ballot and the people can decide," Murphy said.
Another change from Murphy's bill is that Valderrama's limits how much marijuana a patient may possess. Such a provision could preempt concerns that an open-ended amount would cause headaches for law enforcement.
Murphy believes there is a chance the committee will approve Valderamma's bill. "The voter aspect makes it more difficult to oppose," he said. Murphy added that he doubts a local jurisdiction would exercise its right to amend out, because most voters are likely to support a state law legalizing medical marijuana. A recently conducted poll found that 73 percent of Maryland residents are in favor of such a law.
When asked why politicians would be so wary of supporting something that has so much public support, Murphy explained that opposition to medical marijuana carries little risk with voters, while public support of it is relatively untried. "The fear is that you're more likely to get whacked if you voted for it and people are against than if you voted against it and some people are for it," he said. "This isn't a litmus test issue. There are a lot of people who would say, 'Yeah, I think it is a good idea but I would not vote against a guy who didn't think the same way.'"
Robert Kampia, director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Week Online that medical marijuana advocates are more optimistic this time around because last Tuesday's hearing on the amended Valderrama bill went very well. "We're back in action," he said. "It was a super successful day. We'll have at least eight votes and we need twelve. I would be so happy if we pushed this to the House floor, after all we've been through."
Valderrama began the hearing by playing the recorded endorsement of his ophthalmologist, Dr. George S. Malouf, a past president of the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi). "MedChi has more clout on this issue than any other medical group in Maryland," Kampia noted.
Malouf's endorsement was followed by testimony from Valderrama's sister, who suffers from glaucoma and is dying of cancer. She told the committee that she is a card-carrying member of a cannabis club in New York City. Valderrama was to follow her with his own statement, but was too overcome with emotion and asked Kampia to speak instead
Kampia said he expects the committee to vote on the measure Friday (3/24).
But shepherding this bill out of committee this year may be asking too much. Many drug policy reformers have been wondering why medical marijuana has so far fared better in Hawaii, where a bill supported by the Governor has passed both houses, than in Maryland.
According to Kampia, who has worked closely with local advocates on both the Hawaii and Maryland bills, the deciding factor has been time. "The most important difference between our experiences in the two states is that medical marijuana legislation has been percolating in Hawaii for years now, while this was our first try in Maryland. In the former state, legislators have gotten used to the idea of a state medical marijuana bill. In the latter state, legislators saw our campaign as shockingly new, untried, and potentially dangerous or embarrassing for them," he said.
Regarding the Maryland bill's untimely death in committee, Kampia said, "Everyone in Maryland tells me it is virtually impossible to introduce a bill and push it through the legislature in just one season. People are telling me this is going to take four years, which is about what it took in Hawaii. The four year rule might be a good rule of thumb for us."
Even if Valderrama's bill doesn't make it out of committee, the prospects are promising for future attempts. A few days after the vote on Murphy's bill, Maryland State Senator Ulysses Curry, a democrat, expressed sympathy for the bill in a letter published in the Washington Post. He concluded his letter saying, "Opposition to doctor-recommended use of marijuana seems to be based on a distorted perception that somehow if we let sick people use marijuana to improve their quality of life, we will pave the way to legalization. But that is not what the medicinal use of marijuana is about. It is about whether we want seriously ill people to be arrested for seeking physician-recommended relief from their illness."
Curry wants to introduce a new medical marijuana bill in the Senate next year. In the mean time, Kampia hopes to set up a bipartisan House and Senate working group to hammer out a bill that will make it out of committee during next year's session. This will be an opportunity to educate legislators not just about medical marijuana, but about the subtleties of state versus federal drug legislation.
"The focus will be that the state government actually has the authority to change state laws, and patients should be protected under state law," Kampia said. Even though medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law, Kampia said, he wants to remind Maryland legislators that the state is responsible for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.