Efforts for bill on pot go on


The champion of legislation that would make medical uses of marijuana legal in Maryland says he is undeterred by a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that federal law prohibits such a use.

Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Catonsville Republican, plans to be outside The Mall in Columbia this morning, waving signs at a rally supporting medical marijuana. Murphy has sponsored two medical marijuana bills named after Darrell Putman, a former Green Beret and Howard County farmer who died of cancer,

Today's rally is the first of three scheduled this week in Columbia, Frederick and Silver Spring. They are being co-sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington advocacy group.

"I'm just as happy the [federal] case is out of the way," Murphy said of the 8-0 vote by the Supreme Court in a 1998 case involving California clubs founded to distribute the drug after approval of a state law legalizing medical marijuana.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the federal law making marijuana illegal contains no exception for medical uses. The law says marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use," Thomas noted.

Murphy said a clear outcome in the case, though not an encouraging one from his point of view, might help state legislators who had said they were waiting for the Supreme Court ruling before deciding on the issue. Still, he concedes that getting a law legalizing medical uses of marijuana passed in Maryland will take years, adding that "the people using it now don't have a few years."

At first, Murphy said, Putman resisted using marijuana to help him regain weight because it was illegal. By the time he began using it to prepare for a potentially lifesaving stem-cell procedure, he had "waited until he was beyond repair," Murphy said. Putman died in December 1999, just before the first legalization bill was introduced.

Two Howard Democrats who co-sponsored last year's bill with Murphy and Howard Republican Robert H. Kittleman, the House minority leader, said they won't be at the rally today.

Del. Shane Pendergrass said she remains firm in her support of medical marijuana. Del. Frank S. Turner said the Supreme Court decision will make it harder to get a bill passed in Maryland.

Turner also indicated that his support for such a bill is wavering. "I've done a lot of research since I signed on the bill. I think the bill has some validity, but there are substitutes and derivatives that have the same effect," he said.

Pendergrass said she is not wavering. "I absolutely support the concept. I'm still of the portion of a generation who is wondering why marijuana was illegal and so many other things aren't, starting with alcohol," she said.

Murphy said of the Supreme Court ruling, "This does not preclude the state of Maryland from having a compassionate-use law."

Richard Schmitz, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that despite the federal law, "the fact is that 99 percent of all marijuana arrests are made by state and local authorities."

"We're looking for a law similar to a law on the books in California, Oregon and Maine removing criminal penalties," Schmitz said. Nine states have laws legalizing medical marijuana.

Murphy's bill to decriminalize marijuana use by seriously ill people started with 28 supporters in the General Assembly last year. For the second year in a row, it failed to get out of committee.

The first year, it died in the House. Last year, it died in the Senate, where Prince George's County Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Democrat, was the chief sponsor.

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