Pubdate: Wed, 26 Mar 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press


Controversial Legislation Passes On 29-17 Vote; House Has Approved Similar 

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 

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 

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 

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.
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