Lawmakers look to decriminalize marijuana for the sick

Durban poison medical marijuanaBy Julie Bykowicz – The Baltimore Sun – The polio survivor says he thinks about arrest “all the time.”

The Air Force veteran with multiple sclerosis lives in “constant fear” of being handcuffed and taken away from her family.

The crime victim who has suffered seizures and migraine headaches since being assaulted with a crowbar was recently put on probation for 18 months, leaving her feeling like “a wanted criminal in her home state.”

All are ingesting marijuana to ease their symptoms — and looking to the General Assembly to make such use legal.

Some lawmakers failed in their quest this year to develop a medical marijuana program like one now used by 15 states and the District of Columbia. But they have turned their attention to a new approach: allowing users to avoid conviction with a doctor’s note.

Supporters call the change — approved by the Senate and awaiting debate in the House of Delegates — a simple but important step. Since 2003, Maryland has allowed patients charged with possession of marijuana to argue “medical necessity.” A successful claim can mean the reduction of the fine to $100. Under the law, however, they’re still guilty.

The state court system does not keep statistics on the number of defendants who argue medical necessity in the sentencing phase of marijuana possession cases. But Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, said he has found just three instances in his research.

Riffle, whose group advocates for an end to “marijuana prohibition,” attributes the low use of current law to lawyers’ recommendations that clients instead pursue probation before judgment. Though the defendant pays a larger fine, his or her record can be wiped clean.

“It’s an imperfect defense now,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin. “They have a right to get their punishment downgraded. The problem is they are branded a criminal in the process, exposing them to job loss and other negative consequences.”

The Montgomery County Democrat, a law professor and a recent cancer patient, said allowing medicinal use as a defense sends the message “that our state does not view people who are medically desperate as criminals.”

But even under the new law, Maryland’s approach to medical marijuana would remain murky, some current and former marijuana users say.

“You are still going to have to go out on the streets, go to the black market. You are still going to get arrested,” said Debby Miran, a Lutherville woman who has advocated for legalizing medical marijuana. Years ago, she says, she used the drug to stimulate her appetite after receiving a bone marrow transplant as part of her treatment for chronic leukemia.

“There are so many people that need it right now that are not willing to use an illegal substance,” she said. “They’re suffering. It’s heartbreaking.”

When the legislative session began in January, supporters felt certain that this would be the year Maryland legalized medical marijuana. The Senate approved it last year, and a record number of delegates had signed on as co-sponsors

But new state Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein opposed the proposal late last month, sending it into a tailspin. Sharfstein, a former top official with the Food and Drug Administration, cited a lack of scientific consensus about the benefits of marijuana and concerns about regulating a system that the federal government hasn’t touched.

The proposal also drew opposition from the Maryland Chiefs of Police and the Maryland Sheriffs Association, which said it would be too difficult to keep marijuana confined to medical patients.

Some psychiatrists across the country have urged states not to legalize marijuana, saying the drug can exacerbate mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

The Senate and House have voted to study the issue. But after hearing dramatic testimony from some of their sickest constituents, some lawmakers also want the state to stop punishing patients.

Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and the Assembly’s only medical doctor, is pushing his House colleagues to adopt the Senate’s plan.

The legislation must still be debated by the House Judiciary Committee. Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the panel, said he senses “solid support.” The session will end in about two weeks.

Aides to Gov. Martin O’Malley say he would sign a bill that allows marijuana users to present medical need as a defense.

Barry Considine said the development would be “a big deal.”

A bout with polio left the 57-year-old Halethorpe man wracked with pain, muscle weakness and arthritis. He depends on a cane or crutches to travel short distances and must use a wheelchair for longer outings.

For about 15 years, he said, and always with his doctors’ knowledge, he has smoked marijuana to alleviate symptoms. Though he said he smokes infrequently and is careful, the thought of law enforcement is never far from his mind.

Considine, a retired real estate title researcher who draws Social Security disability benefits, has testified in Annapolis every year since 2007 and writes a blog and opinion pieces about the benefits of medical marijuana.

Passage of a bill to decriminalize the drug for medical patients, he said, would be “just one step away” from a full-fledged marijuana program of the kind found in other states. “We’re getting there,” he said.

Sarah Eyre, an Air Force veteran diagnosed in 2009 with multiple sclerosis, has told lawmakers of how her illness has changed her life.

“Two years ago, I was losing the ability to write. I was walking with a cane, I had terrible pain in my feet and legs, and I was experiencing crippling migraines that left me in bed for days,” the 34-year-old Baltimore woman wrote. “Today, I am an active runner and yoga instructor, I manage my small business, and I can once again enjoy life with my husband and daughter.”

Cannabis — along with traditional pharmaceuticals — improved her quality of life and helped her feel “normal,” she wrote. “For this, I am considered a criminal.”

Eyre characterized the decriminalization move as “progress,” but she said it would leave many patients in the lurch. “You’re still buying drugs on the streets, and you have no idea what you’re getting,” she said.

One Arnold woman and her family know well the legal risks associated with using marijuana. Erica Jones had turned to the drug to help with migraines and seizures she suffered after being struck in the head with a crowbar.

Not long after she and her father testified last year about their fear she would be arrested, she was.

Jones spent 12 hours in jail. Her family talked with several lawyers, and all recommended she seek probation before judgment so that her record could be wiped clean. Although she could have claimed medical necessity and paid the $100 fine, several lawyers advised her to seek a probation before judgment instead to avoid a criminal conviction.

“The lawyers also felt that it was not wise to bring up the issue of medical marijuana since it might stir the political passions of the judge,” her father, Bob Jones wrote.

She paid $1,250 for a lawyer, and $250 for a fine.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com
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