Marijuana debate becomes personal

After a gripping debate in which senators described watching friends and family members die in pain, the Maryland Senate voted yesterday to reduce punishment for the very ill who use marijuana as medicine.

The House of Delegates approved an identical bill two weeks ago, meaning the matter appears headed for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s desk .

Ehrlich said yesterday that he is leaning toward signing the bill, which would make Maryland the ninth state to offer some form of legal shelter to medical marijuana patients.

The 29-17 vote yesterday followed an intense discussion between those who believe marijuana can be a dying patient's last hope and others who see it as the first step toward legalizing drugs.

Some lawmakers said the debate ranked as one of the greatest in recent Senate history. One by one senators rose from their seats to tell their stories.

"If you haven't been there, you can't say what it is like," said Sen. Nathaniel Exum, a Prince George's County Democrat who lost his 25-year-old daughter to cancer in 1993. "I was there. I saw here moaning and groaning and she said, 'Daddy, can you do something to help me?' I couldn't help her.

"If we could have gotten her marijuana, we would have done that for her."

Others countered with equally passionate arguments -- including stories of teen-age drug overdoses -- that the bill would set a dangerous precedent.

"There is nothing compassionate about the step we are taking toward the legalization of a dangerous drug," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, worried that the state would be in effect subsidizing "drug kingpins."

The legislation would establish a maximum $100 fine for those who can prove to a judge they used marijuana as a medical necessity, such as people with cancer or AIDS in the last stages of life.

"This is not going to be for allergies or trivial illness," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "This is for people with the most serious health problems."

Those who cannot prove medical necessity would remain subject to current penalties of up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

A person who claims medical need could also be prosecuted under federal law, which makes no distinction for medicinal use.

Though there is conflicting science over how and if marijuana eases some symptoms, the Food and Drug Administration calls it an unsafe and ineffective medicine. White House drug policy coordinator John P. Walters also spoke against the bill.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said the drug sometimes increases appetites and can prevent the terminally ill from "wasting away."

Eight states have enacted medical marijuana legislation, most through referendums.

Initially, supporters had hoped the legislature would pass a bill decriminalizing marijuana for terminally ill patients who enrolled in a state pilot program.

A House committee amended the bill to its current form to avoid the scrutiny of federal law enforcement officials.

The vote yesterday was a personal victory for Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, who received a diagnosis of cancer in 1989. "These aren't the people you want prosecuted," Brinkley said.

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