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Pot as medicine [Editorial]

A state commission meeting this week to draft rules governing access to medical marijuana by patients and physicians has left advocates for the drug's therapeutic use wondering whether it will ever become available to those who need it. The commissioners need to balance the scientific and medical issues raised by medical marijuana against the legal constraints imposed by state and federal statutes. But in trying to walk a fine line between the two, the panel appears to have crafted rules that in some instances are so restrictive that many patients with illnesses that could be treated with the drug may never be able to get it.

That would defeat the whole purpose of Maryland's medical marijuana law, which has already been delayed once since its passage in 2013. In trying to avoid every conceivable abuse that might occur under the program before it even starts the state runs the risk of hedging its bet with so many legal hurdles that for all practical purposes the law may as well not exist.

Some of the requirements and restrictions aired by the commission this week would potentially disqualify thousands of patients whose doctors otherwise might have no problem recommending them for marijuana therapy. For example, the rules would disqualify all patients with a history of substance abuse, no matter how long ago it occurred. Under that restriction, a 65-year-old cancer patient who was arrested for having a joint in his pocket when he was a teenager couldn't get medical marijuana to alleviate the nausea and other side effects of chemotherapy treatments. Where's the sense in that if the point of the legislation is to ease such suffering?

Another rule would disqualify anyone convicted of a misdemeanor in the previous five years, including nonviolent crimes and traffic violations. But what do such petty offenses have to do with determining whether a doctor can recommend medical marijuana to relieve the symptoms of AIDS patients or the neurological and muscular disorders suffered by people with multiple sclerosis or epilepsy? The restriction seems unnecessarily punitive in a way that suggests its only real purpose is to prevent as many people as possible from benefiting from the drug even in cases where they clearly could be helped by it.

Other rules seem deliberately designed to erect obstacles in the way of people gaining access to medical marijuana even after a doctor has recommended it. One proposed restriction, for example, would require medical marijuana growers to keep at least two employees on site 24 hours a day seven days a week. Presumably that requirement is aimed at protecting the crops from poachers who might steal onto unattended properties and help themselves to the plants while no one is watching. But a gated fence or other locked enclosure would do the job just as well. That's what we do to protect the wares of gun stores, pharmacies or other businesses with regulated inventory that shut down overnight.

Similarly, another rule would forbid a marijuana dispensary or growing operation from being located within 500 feet of a school, day care center, church or playground. That would effectively ban access to medical marijuana in densely populated urban areas like Baltimore, where the needs are greatest, and limit such businesses to suburban and rural areas of the state that are difficult or impossible to reach for people without cars. It's another example of the state seemingly going out of its way to prevent people from benefiting from the medical marijuana law even if they qualify for the therapy.

Maryland has a legitimate interest in making sure the state's medical marijuana program isn't misused by people who simply want to exploit it for recreational purposes, something that has happened in some other states that have legalized the drug for medical use. And the commission is right to steer clear of policies that could expose patients and their physicians to possible legal jeopardy under federal laws that still classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance along with drugs like heroin and LSD.

But advocates of the therapy are right to be concerned that Maryland doesn't overcompensate by creating a medical marijuana program so laden with restrictions and obstacles to access that it fails to help the very people it was intended to benefit. A legal medical marijuana program is supported by an overwhelming majority of Maryland voters and the state has got to find a middle ground that enables those patients who have a legitimate need to use it while minimizing its potential for abuse.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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