The chances for getting a medical marijuana law passed by a state legislature this year are growing slimmer, with bills in only two states -- Maryland and Vermont -- still alive. Both are pared down measures but would still be considered victories if they manage to win votes in the states' upper houses and survive gubernatorial vetoes.
In a surprising turn of events over the weekend, Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee chair Joseph Vallario (D-Prince George's County) first killed the medical marijuana bill his committee was considering, then engineered a weaker amended bill easily approved by the committee, and then led the measure to a favorable vote in the whole House. It now goes to the Maryland Senate, where it must be voted out of committee before facing a floor vote. Early signs are that the measure will at least get a hearing.
"We have a committee hearing set for April 3; that's a good sign because whether to schedule a vote or a hearing is at the discretion of the committee chair," said Richard Schmitz, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "We are hopeful that with the support of Vallario and with Del. Donald Murphy's [R-Baltimore County, sponsor of the Darrell Putnam Compassionate Use Act] tireless work, we will be able to move the bill out of committee next week," he told DRCNet.
It didn't happen without some dramatic weekend maneuvers. Vallario, who as committee chair has the ability to effectively kill a bill by sitting on it, had been a long and bitter foe of medical marijuana, but appeared willing to hold hearings until he realized that the measure had enough votes to pass. Then waving a letter from DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson, he abruptly ended the session without allowing a vote.
"I am not going to have a part in something that is in violation of federal law," a visibly angry Vallario said.
As stunned spectators watched, Vallario then summoned lawmakers into his office for a 15-minute meeting. "Vallario said no way in hell was he going to allow a vote, but then he called Murphy into his office," said Schmitz. "He wouldn't allow the original bill to pass, but he offered instead a bill that would provide an affirmative defense. But he said Murphy's original bill would never make it out of committee."
The Murphy bill would have provided for state registration of persons using marijuana under a doctor's recommendation. Under Vallario's amendment, all of that is gone. Instead, the bill will reduce the maximum penalty for people who use marijuana for medical purposes to a $100 fine. Medical marijuana users would still face arrest, but could argue in court that their use is medical and thereby punishable by a lesser fine than the current $1,000 and up to one year in jail.
"Del. Murphy decided that one of his goals was to keep medical marijuana patients out of prison, so he accepted the amendment," said Schmitz. The Vallario amendment passed the committee easily on a 14-4 vote.
"This is a victory," said Schmitz. "Patients will no longer face the threat of jail, and the $100 fine is the maximum. Judges could order lesser fines or no fines at all. We don't believe that prosecutors will waste their time harassing medical marijuana patients over a $100 fine."
In Vermont, that state's medical marijuana bill has been passed by the House and was the subject of Senate committee hearings this week. The Vermont measure would allow seriously ill people to obtain a physician's certificate to use marijuana to alleviate pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS. It authorizes patients or caregivers to grow and possess up to three mature plants, four immature plants, or three ounces of marijuana.
Despite support from leading members of the Democratically-controlled state Senate, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean is a staunch opponent and has hinted that he is maneuvering to kill the bill in the Senate so as to avoid having to possibly veto it. "There are all kinds of interesting spots out there," said Dean at a news conference this week when asked about a possible veto. "Usually, you try to anticipate them ahead of time, and avoid those problems, which is what I anticipate we will do this time."
But the bill has gotten a hearing in Senate committees this week, in no small part because the Democratic leadership has come out behind it. "It's going to be considered like any other bill," said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). "I support it. I'm sending it to the Health and Welfare Committee, where it will get a clear hearing," he said, adding again, "I support it."
Sen. Nancy Chard (D-Windham), chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee also endorsed the bill. "I support it, conceptually," she said. And she allowed a hearing to take place.
Supporters of the bill used that opportunity to try to blunt criticism that the bill opened the door to marijuana legalization. Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), the House bill's lead sponsor, testified that the bill would preclude recreational use. "We are creating a distinction between medical use of marijuana and non-medical recreational use of marijuana," he said. "Let's look at who's using it and why," he said.
"We are very confident that this bill will get out of the committee," said MPP's Schmitz. "No one testified in opposition, and Zuckerman and medical marijuana patient Katherine Perrera gave strong testimony." As for Gov. Dean, Schmitz said that he believed the governor is laying low. "The governor has made no secret of his opposition, but he hasn't said a word recently, he hasn't made a mention of a veto. We conducted polling showing 74% support for this. He is aware of those numbers."
The Vermont bill still needs to be passed by the Health and Welfare Committee and the Judiciary Committee before coming to a Senate floor vote.
In Connecticut, a medical marijuana measure that would have allowed patients with a doctor's approval to grow marijuana indoors died in the end-of-session rush. "It died in committee on Monday," said MPP's Schmitz. "There were 120 bills that needed votes that day. It was number 35. It got caught in a log jam."
Medical marijuana via the state legislature in 2002 is down to two states.