Friday, March 14, 2003; Page B05
By Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
An effort to essentially decriminalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes won preliminary approval yesterday in the Maryland House of Delegates as members rejected a string of amendments that proponents said would have effectively killed the bill.
The legislation, which would significantly reduce the penalties for possessing or using marijuana, could come for a final vote as early as next week. A companion bill in the Senate concerning medical marijuana use is in committee. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has signaled that he could support such a measure.
Under the proposal, approved on a voice vote, the maximum penalty for marijuana use or possession would be $100, with no possibility of jail time. Specifically, the bill asks that the courts consider as "a mitigating factor" any evidence of medical necessity. In essence, proponents hope that judges will simply throw out cases involving patients who use marijuana to alleviate suffering caused by such diseases as AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis or those dealing with nausea from cancer treatment.
"This bill is going to cover very, very few cases," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's).
Critics argued that the changes would reduce the penalties for all marijuana users, not just those who need the drug for medical reasons. "Why don't we open it up for heroin . . . crack cocaine?" asked Del. Brian R. Moe (D-Prince George's), who offered an amendment aimed at killing the measure.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County) said that the bill was too "wide open and vague" and didn't address how a state law permitting medical marijuana use would square with federal law prohibiting the possession and use of the drug.
Moreover, McDonough argued that the bill gave no real guidance to judges who might have to consider cases in which prospective patients are arrested for marijuana use. "We have absolutely no guidelines for the judiciary," McDonough said.
McDonough also criticized the bill for not addressing "the distribution and purchasing mechanism" for the marijuana.
Another critic, Del. Barry Glassman (R-Harford), said, "This is really a revenue enhancement act for the drug dealers."
One amendment defeated yesterday sought to delay the program from being
activated "until the United States Congress authorizes a physician to prescribe
marijuana for medical purposes and the United States Food and Drug Administration
approves the use of marijuana for medical purposes."
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