Medical 'Pot' Bills Advance in Maryland, Vermont
By Erin Madigan, Staff Writer
Three of the eight medical marijuana measures introduced in state legislatures this session have been snuffed out, but bills that would ease restrictions on "therapeutic" use of the drug are advancing in Vermont and Maryland.
Debate over medical marijuana often pits science against social policy, and state policy against federal law.
Proponents say the drug benefits people who suffer from AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis or nausea from cancer treatment. Opponents question the plant's medical merit and argue that allowing medical exception is a "dangerous" step toward legalization. They also say state-level provisions undermine federal law, which prohibits marijuana.
Eight states Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- permit marijuana use for patients with doctor approval. Arizona law requires a prescription.
Vermont senators passed a bill March 13, which would make their state the tenth in the nation to put a medical pot' provision on the books. In Maryland, a bill that won House approval March 18, earned preliminary support in a Senate committee March 20. Like other state laws, the Vermont measure wouldn't legalize the drug. Instead, it would exempt doctor-approved users from penalties for possessing it. Currently, marijuana possession in the Green Mountain State is punishable by up to six months in prison or a $500 fine.
If the legislation is enacted, patients approved by the state Department of Health would be issued an ID card, allowing them to grow and possess marijuana for medical use. If transported, the drug would have to be carried in a lock box, said Vermont state Sen. James Leddy (D-Chittenden), who has sponsored the bill.
"Frankly, I think the federal government has been a major barrier in this area, we don't want to criminalize folks. I hope states like Vermont that are taking action on this issue will bring some enlightenment to the federal government," Leddy said.
Vermont state Sen. Hull Maynard (R-Rutland) said he voted against the bill because it offered legal protection to patients, but not to those that would sell them the drug.
"The dealer is going to get the book thrown at him if he's caught, but the patient has a card protecting him. There are people getting (marijuana for medicine) now, they're getting it on the street, let them keep getting it that way," Maynard said. Leddy and other backers of the Vermont legislation said it has a fair chance of passing the House, which approved a similar measure last year. But Vermont Gov. James Douglas (R) is "not at all enthusiastic" about the bill, " Jason Gibbs, Douglas' spokesman, said.
"In (the governor's) view, it's inappropriate for a state to pass a law that's in direct conflict with federal law and it also sends the wrong message to young people," Gibbs said.
In Maryland, Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) favors medical use of marijuana in principle, but hasn't officially taken a position on the bill that narrowly won House approval March 18, said Shareese DeLeaver, the governor's spokeswoman.
The Maryland bill would simply reduce the penalty for medical marijuana use. Patients found in possession of the drug could cite medical reasons as a defense in court, allowing a judge to impose a reduced fine of $100. The current state penalty for marijuana possession is up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine.
"The Maryland bill is a somewhat watered-down version of what other states have passed. We're less than thrilled with it," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C.-based marijuana advocacy group. "It's better than prison, but people with cancer or AIDS would still be subject to handcuffs and arrest and the indignity that entails."
In other recent state action:
- In Montana, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula) that would have authorized the use of cannabis for people suffering "debilitating" medical conditions and protected those users from being punished under criminal violation died in the House Feb. 26, by a vote of 60 to 40.
- In New Mexico, the "Compassionate Use Act," introduced by Rep. Ken Martinez (D-Grants), would have differentiated between medical and non-medical marijuana use.
- It was defeated in the House March 6, by a vote of 46 to 20. In New York, a medical pot bill sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) has 24 additional co-sponsors, but the measure hasn't moved from committee. It lacks sponsorship in the Senate and Gov. George Pataki (R) has not shown support.
No action has been taken on bills introduced in Connecticut, Iowa and Mississippi.