Feb 12th 2002
By SUSAN GERVASI Journal staff writer
Should those suffering from the symptoms and side-effects of treatment for certain serious illnesses be allowed to grow and use marijuana? According to more than one-third of the 141-member Maryland House of Delegates - including several Prince George's County representatives - the answer is yes.
"As a social worker, I watched a lot of people waste away from AIDS-related diseases," said Del. Melony Griffith, D-25th-Suitland, a supporter of proposed state legislation allowing the licensed medical use of marijuana - which some believe can help suppress nausea, stimulate appetite and relieve pain. "I've got to believe that my constituents want their loved ones to have access to remedies that could keep them from wasting away or starving to death, when [marijuana] is available to enhance their appetite."
Along with 52 co-sponsors, Griffith has endorsed the medical marijuana bill spearheaded by Baltimore Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy.
"It could save lives," said Murphy, whose own father died of cancer in 1997 - a painful death Murphy now thinks might have been eased by marijuana. "It was horrible. I watched as he tried to eliminate his pain with morphine, which will wipe you out so much you can't have a conversation."
Maryland law holds that marijuana possession is a misdemeanor subject to penalties including a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Murphy's bill would exempt Marylanders from prosecution if a doctor recommends the use of marijuana, and if they register with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
A patient or primary caregiver could grow up to seven marijuana plants indoors, and possess up to three ounces of useable marijuana.
Doctors could recommend its use for medical conditions which include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, severe pain and nausea, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
The next step for Murphy's bill is a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
"There are many people for whom using marijuana satisfies a need that no other legal medication does," said Murphy, who believes that many patients might be helped by medical marijuana but would avoid it for fear of prosecution. "It shouldn't be the policy of this state to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people whose only crime is attempting to alleviate their pain and suffering."
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine - a branch of the National Academy of Sciences - reported that "nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana."
Similar Murphy-led legislation died in a Senate committee last year and was killed by the House Judiciary Committee the year before that. Though a number of other states have passed medical marijuana legislation, and voters have sponsored successful pro-marijuana referendums, the Supreme Court last year ruled that federal anti-drug laws have precedence over state laws, with no exception for the drug's medical use.
The Maryland Attorney General's office last year wrote that while the Supreme Court ruling did not preclude the General Assembly from eliminating criminal penalties for medical marijuana use, medically-exempted pot users could still be prosecuted.
With no "medical necessity" exception allowed by the Supreme Court, "even if the General Assembly created an exception to the State drug laws, [those exempted] individuals ... would remain subject to federal criminal prosecution or civil actions based on federal law," wrote the state's Chief Counsel on Opinions and Advice Robert N. McDonald.
Nevertheless, support for medical marijuana legislation has continued to grow with each General Assembly session. According to Murphy, the 52 other delegates who've signed onto his bill this year constitute the largest body of state legislators in the nation to endorse medical marijuana. Along with local Dels. Joan B. Pitkin, D-23rd-Bowie, and David M. Valderrama, D-26th-Fort Washington, Del. Pauline H. Menes, D-21st-College Park, also has signed onto Murphy's bill.
"I've heard from individuals in previous years who testified they were in pain constantly, like those suffering from end-stage cancer," said Menes, who has observed support grow since Murphy first introduced marijuana legislation. "They were convinced finally to try marijuana, and they got relief from nasuea and were able to hold down food and medicine. Being able to eat gave them strength of fight the disease."
But Del. James W. Hubbard, D-23rd-Bowie, said he's not convinced by such arguments, and opposes the legislation.
"I think it just opens the door for somebody finding a medical purpose for stronger hallucinogens," said Hubbard, who suggested that rather than a law being passed, there should be a voter referendum on the issue. "Nobody in the past has proven to me what the numbers of people who have [symptoms relieved by marijuana] are."
On the claim that marijuana can enhance appetite in the ill, Hubbard noted the tendency of pot smokers to get "the munchies" and questioned what that might mean for sick individuals.
"Who's to say what they're eating is healthy?" Hubbard asked, adding that he also wondered about other potential problems. "Who's to say these people aren't going to be driving? I think there's a lot more negatives than positives."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, D, who underwent surgery for skin cancer on Friday, has opposed medical marijuana legislation in the past.
"He understands and has great sympathy for people who have pain management issues," Glendening press spokesman Mike Morrill said on Monday. "But he believes we don't need [medical marijuana] with so many options available, and when we're trying so hard to eliminate drugs from our society."
But Menes, who sits on the House Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, believes the issues surrounding legal and illegal substance use are separate.
"I would not want to do anything
to encourage the use of illegal drugs," she said. "But I put this in a
very special position. There seems to be a growing understanding about
the need to help alleviate pain [in the very ill]. If this does it, what
is the harm?"
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