April 5, 2010

Medical marijuana gets late-session push from Senate committee

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The full Senate will take up a measure to allow Maryland doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana to their patients, as lawmakers make a late-session push for the proposal that had languished for months.

On Monday, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee signed off on a medicinal marijuana bill that Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said had been worked on with members of the House of Delegates as well. Though a House panel recommended similar changes, delegates studying the issue may want to put action off for a year.

The Senate committee approved several amendments to the bill, including one increasing from two to six ounces the maximum amount that doctors could prescribe. Doctors would only be able to approve marijuana as treatment if they believe other methods would be too harmful, under another amendment also approved by the panel.

The bill was approved after nearly an hour of discussion on the bill’s amendments. Another change allowing landlords and condo associations to ban the use of medical pot divided the committee but was ultimately approved.

Raskin, a co-sponsor, said the bill would establish strict control over marijuana use. Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, is the sponsor of a similar House bill. It would set up the framework for pot to be grown by state–regulated producers and distributed to pharmacies.

“We want to build the tightest ship in the country when it comes to medical marijuana,” he said. But Raskin also pointed out that many people need marijuana to deal with painful afflictions or loss of appetite.

“What’s the alternative,” he asked. “We send them out to an alley and they go and buy drugs?”

Del. James Hubbard, D-Prince Georges, headed a work group on similar House legislation. He said it was a good bill, but that the cost of the change, coupled with concerns about how pharmacists would be affected, could hold it back. The work group recommended drafting regulations over the summer and returning to the issue next year.

“We don’t pass bills without funding sources,” Hubbard said, referring to costs that analysts believe would take to get the program off the ground. “And in this budget year, it’s tough trying to find $40, much less $400,000.”

The legislation would also change the way that marijuana is classified in the state, from the strictest category of controlled substances to the second-strictest. Among its companions would be cocaine, rather than heroin. The change would allow pot to be used in scientific research here.

Legislative analysts project that it would cost $40 for a patient to be licensed as a medical marijuana user, and $400 for a pharmacy to become a licensed distributor. Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick and Washington, tried to double the fees. The move failed, but he succeeded in adding an amendment that devotes any excess money from the program to drug treatment programs.

“I think the drug addiction’s going to be a lot worse than the people who want to sell marijuana think is going to happen,” Mooney said.