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Senate OKs medical marijuana bill

Controversial legislation passes on 29-17 vote; House has approved similar measure,0,2302869.story?coll=bal%2Dlocal%2Dheadlines

March 26, 2003, 3:20 PM EST
The Associated Press

The state Senate approved legislation today to substantially reduce criminal penalties for seriously ill people caught smoking marijuana as a way of easing their symptoms.

The Senate bill was approved 29-17 despite the objections of opponents who denounced the measure as a stepping stone to legalizing marijuana altogether. Twenty-four Democrats joined five Republicans in support of the bill, which would set a maximum fine of $100 and no jail time for defendants who can convince a judge they need to smoke marijuana for medical reasons. Nine Republicans and eight Democrats voted against the measure.

The House has already approved a similar bill, and supporters believe they have an excellent chance of getting one or both bills to Gov. Robert Ehrlich to sign or veto. When he served in Congress, Ehrlich supported medical marijuana use and continues to say that he supports the concept, although he has not taken a position on this particular bill.

Backers of the legislation say smoking marijuana can alleviate the symptoms of serious illnesses such as cancer, HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease, and can help patients suffering from nausea hold down food and medications.

In an hour of debate on the chamber floor today, senators supporting the measure gave emotional accounts of their own family struggles with cancer and urged the passage of the bill as a way to show compassion to those in their dying days.

Sen. Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George's, related how his 25-year-old daughter died of cancer, wasting away with nausea and dehydration, "saying, 'Daddy, can you do something?' and there was nothing I could do to help her."

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, told how she had "closed about five family members' eyes."

Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, recalled how he met a number of sick people who could have benefited from marijuana when he underwent radiation treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1989.

"These are not the people we want to prosecute and go after," Brinkley said.

Opponents countered that the Food and Drug Administration does not consider marijuana an acceptable treatment for any diseases. MedChi, an organization that represents Maryland's doctors, and U.S. drug czar John P. Walters are against the measure.

Sen. Larry Haines, R-Carroll, argued that passing the measure would send the wrong message to children about a "gateway drug" that leads to harder narcotics.

Under current law, simple possession or use of marijuana can bring penalties of up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine. Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, said passing the bill would set up a "bifurcated system" where "we have something that is illegal, that isn't really illegal under certain circumstances."

Haines said: "It's not about compassion. I think it's a step toward legalizing a very dangerous drug."

Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, a registered nurse and the chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, replied: "I'm not one who's looking to legalize any drugs in this General Assembly, but I will tell you I'm not willing to leave patients in pain and not willing to eat."

Seven states with medical marijuana laws enacted them by ballot initiatives, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a group working to reform marijuana laws. In 2000, Hawaii became the first state to pass a law through the state legislature.

Last year, a Maryland bill matching the one that passed today was approved by the House of Delegates but was killed in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee under a more conservative chairman who lost his re-election bid. This year, it passed that same committee by one vote.

Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press