By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun
8:16 PM EST, March 9, 2012
A clean-cut young man with Tourette's syndrome sat at the witness table in Annapolis Friday afternoon, his head occasionally jerking back and forth, and pleaded with Maryland lawmakers to make it legal to use marijuana for medical purposes.
The substance, he said, causes a "dramatic change" in his symptoms, softening the pain, and does not interfere with other medicines he must take.
"I'm asking you to do the right thing," Adam Epstein, 15, told members of the House Health and Government Operations and Judiciary committees in a joint hearing. "Please help us who are suffering."
But there is little chance that a medical marijuana bill will become law this year in Maryland. A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that he would likely veto such a bill out of concern that state workers could face federal prosecution for facilitating drug use.
The administration's position came as a shock to some supporters of the legislation, particularly since O'Malley's health secretary, Joshua M. Sharfstein, had participated in a yearlong task force effort to establish a framework for a medical marijuana law. Sharfstein had endorsed one of the two options the panel produced.
"My expectation was that we'd be able to support legislation" this year, Sharfstein told the lawmakers. "However, the legal landscape has been shifting."
The U.S. government considers the sale of marijuana for medical purposes illegal, he said, and federal prosecutors in some states have threatened to dismantle dispensaries.
Kristen M. Mahoney, executive director of the Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention, testified that legalizing medical use of marijuana could jeopardize federal grants to Maryland, though she said the U.S. government has not withdrawn financial support from other states that permit medical marijuana.
Last year, the General Assembly established a task force to draft model legislation that would legalize marijuana use for medical purposes in Maryland. The group reported back in December, offering two possible measures. One would give doctors the power to prescribe medical marijuana and allow a network of state-sanctioned and supervised dispensaries and growers.
The other, initially backed by Sharfstein, is more conservative and would create a tightly monitored program in which an educational research institution would dispense the drug to patients.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and physician who has long advocated medical use of marijuana, said his colleagues should act on either bill despite the administration's reluctance.
Maryland, he said, is far behind other states on legalizing medical marijuana, and the state could keep an eye on other areas to see how the federal government reacts while setting up its own program.
"I have seen no instances of prosecution," Morhaim said. "It is not happening. I think it is important to stay in touch with what is actually going on."
Del. Tiffany T. Alston, a Prince George's County Democrat, grilled Sharfstein on why the administration feels threatened by federal law on marijuana and took a different tack in endorsing same-sex marriages and allowing tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.
"All of a sudden we want to get in line with what the federal government says?" she asked. "Can you offer us any enlightenment on that?"
Under current law, patients can avoid prosecution for marijuana use in Maryland if they can show it is being used to ease pain associated with a debilitating medical condition. However, several patients noted that it would be costly to hire an attorney to effectively present that defense.
Morhaim suggested extending a similar protection to caregivers — essentially allowing healthy people to buy marijuana for those who are too ill to seek it themselves on the black market. He called the idea a "baby step" that would help move the legislation forward.
Sharfstein said he would be open to discussing the idea.
As he did last year, Montel Williams testified in support of the measure. The Baltimore-born talk show host has multiple sclerosis and says he has used marijuana to alleviate pain.
"What you are trying to accomplish is being compassionate to those who are suffering," Williams said.
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