Proposal to use medical marijuana to treat heroin addiction dropped from Maryland bill

Supporters of a bill that would increase the number of licenses Maryland will issue to growers of medical marijuana dropped a proposal Monday that would have allowed the drug to be used to treat heroin addiction.

After the provision was eliminated, the House of Delegates rejected a flurry of Republican amendments to the legislation and gave it preliminary approval.

The provision would have added heroin and other opioid addictions to the list of conditions that could be treated with cannabis products recommended by a physician. It was added by a House committee on the recommendation of a work group that drafted the version of the legislation that came to the House floor.

The notion that marijuana could be a useful tool in fighting Maryland's heroin problem was immediately criticized by researchers who said there was scant evidence that cannabis is effective in treating addiction.

When the bill came up Monday, Del. Cheryl Glenn introduced an amendment stripping the provision she had championed in the work group. Its removal was approved by a voice vote with little discussion.

Glenn, the bill's sponsor and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she decided to take the provision out and revisit the idea next year. The Baltimore Democrat said she didn't want anything to get in the way of passing the measure, which includes broad changes in the way medical marijuana would be regulated.

"Like they say, the juice wasn't worth the squeeze," she said. Glenn noted that as an emergency bill, the legislation needs 85 votes to pass. That means proponents can't afford to lose the votes of moderate Democrats in the face of likely Republican opposition.

The bill was approved by the House Health & Government Operations Committee with all but one Republican opposed.

The legislation is a top priority of the black caucus, which hopes to give minority-owned companies an opportunity to have a stake in what is expected to become a lucrative new industry.

No African-American-controlled companies were among the 15 that received provisional grower's licenses from the state's Medical Cannabis Commission last year. Black legislators and their allies criticized the commission for failing to emphasize racial diversity enough in making their selections despite a state law requiring them to do so.

The bill would add another five grower's licenses to the 15 allowed in the medical marijuana law passed in 2014. The legislation also calls for a study of whether there have been disparities in the treatment of minorities in related industries. Such a study could provide a possible constitutional basis for allowing preference to be given to minorities when selecting the additional five licensees.

The Maryland attorney general's office has warned that giving a racial preference without showing a history of past discrimination would likely leave the state open to a legal challenge.

Republican delegates offered several amendments aimed at changing the way licenses would be awarded. They questioned whether the bill's process for awarding the new licenses would be upheld by the courts.

"I would suggest there is a risk involved," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County. He suggested it would be better to award the five new licenses to the applicants who were ranked 16 through 20 in the earlier selection round. That idea was rejected.

Del. Brett Wilson, a Washington County Republican, proposed an amendment that would have excluded anyone with a drug-related felony conviction from involvement in the medical marijuana business for life.

"In this type of industry, it is too close to home and too important to mess up," Wilson said.

Delegates voted to keep the ban at seven years after Glenn argued that the amendment would place a disproportionate burden on African-Americans.

All of the Republican amendments were rejected, most by margins that indicate the sponsors are close to the 85 votes they need to pass the bill with a veto-proof majority. The legislation is expected to receive a final House vote by midweek. If it passes, it will move to the Senate.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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