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House affirms affirmative defense for marijuana

The House of Delegates on Saturday gave final passage to a plan to decriminalize marijuana possession for the sick.

The bill, which also includes a medical marijuana study component, must be adopted by the Senate (which has already blessed a slightly different bill) before the conclusion of the legislative session Monday night. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign the proposal into law.

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Lawmakers are looking to extend the affirmative defense option as Maryland officials research a plan to develop and implement a system for the prescription and distribution of medical marijuana. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use.

Under the House's affirmative defense proposal, a person arrested for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana could present a doctor's note, medical paperwork or the live testimony of a doctor in court as evidence of a medical necessity for the drug. The judge or jury would have to be convinced of the necessity by a preponderance of the evidence in order to find the person not guilty, the House plan states.

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Delegates registered objections to the affirmative defense portion of the proposal, but an amendment to strip that portion out of the larger medical marijuana bill failed on a vote of 42-79.

Del. Theodore Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, asked colleagues how the legislature could "put our stamp of approval" on what is listed as a Schedule One drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Why rush in Maryland to circumvent the FDA process?" Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican asked, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's lack of action on medical marijuana.

Del. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat, defended the bill as a "half-step" forward for medical marijuana. In 2003, the state legislature allowed sick people arrested for marijuana possession to present medical evidence as a way to secure a more lenient sentence of a $100 fine.

But lawmakers said they'd heard compelling testimony from patients who felt it was unfair that they be marred by the criminal conviction that comes with those lesser penalties.

"They've been saddled with a criminal conviction that has ruined their lives," said Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat.

The legislature's only medical doctor, Morhaim has spearheaded the legislation in the House. On the Senate side, Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, and Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat -- both cancer survivors -- are leading the effort.

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