HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Ehrlich Signs Marijuana Law
Pubdate: Fri, 23 May 2003
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Author:   Lori Montgomery, Washington Post Staff Writer
Note: Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.
Cited: Marijuana Policy Project
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


Medical Use of Drug Will Remain Illegal, But Lesser Penalty Will Apply

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed legislation yesterday to dramatically 
reduce criminal penalties for cancer patients and others who smoke 
marijuana to relieve suffering, but the new law will not allow seriously 
ill people to obtain the drug legally.

The measure, which takes effect Oct. 1, merely makes "medical necessity" a 
defense against charges of marijuana possession. Instead of facing a 
maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, those who can convince 
a judge that they use marijuana to relieve symptoms of a chronic or 
life-threatening illness will have to pay a fine of no more than $100.

Though the Maryland law falls short of measures in California and seven 
other states where marijuana use is legal for medical purposes, advocates 
said it sends an important message of support to sick people and their 
caregivers -- as well as to police and prosecutors, who might otherwise 
brand them criminals.

"It helps a little bit," said Erin Hildebrandt, 32, a mother of five from 
Smithsburg who has used marijuana to relieve pain from Crohn's disease. "At 
least I know I'm not going to be hauled off to prison if I'm caught."

While the practical effects of the law may be limited, the political 
fallout could be substantial. Ehrlich is only the second governor in the 
nation -- and the first Republican -- to sign such legislation.

The other eight measures were enacted by ballot initiative. A medical 
marijuana initiative also won approval from District voters but has been 
blocked by Congress. In addition, 21 states, including Virginia, have 
approved largely symbolic laws or resolutions recognizing marijuana's 
medicinal value.

Ehrlich's decision to sign the bill puts him at odds with conservatives in 
his party and with the Bush White House, which lobbied hard and applied "a 
lot of pressure," Ehrlich said, to persuade him to veto the bill.

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 
confirmed that White House drug czar John P. Walters and his deputy 
telephoned Ehrlich to express the administration's opposition. Walters, who 
has launched a national campaign against efforts to relax state drug laws, 
has said that arguments for medicinal marijuana make no more sense than "an 
argument for medicinal crack."

Ehrlich "probably acted with the best of intentions with the idea of 
wanting to help people but was badly briefed on the science and public 
health aspect of the measure," Riley said yesterday.

Ehrlich's decision also outraged many of his supporters, who accused the 
new governor of being duped by groups that seek access to marijuana for 
recreational use and are exploiting sick people to get their foot in the 
door. The Maryland law was backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a 
Washington-based organization that supports decriminalization.

"This is a rotten and wrongheaded piece of work that will benefit the 
pro-marijuana lobby and the potheads of Maryland," said Malcolm Lawrence of 
Chevy Chase, a former State Department official in charge of international 
narcotics control in the Nixon and Carter administrations.

Lawrence said he voted for Ehrlich and contributed to his political 
campaign but now will "vote for anyone but Robert Ehrlich" in 2006.

"Along comes the first Republican governor in three decades, and he gives 
in on this legislation?" Lawrence said. "This is such a stupid maneuver, I 
have to react to this."

Ehrlich seemed unconcerned by the uproar. He acknowledged that the 
marijuana law was "controversial even within our administration," which is 
why he took nearly two months to decide whether to sign it.

In the U.S. House, Ehrlich co-sponsored a bill that would have authorized 
states to stake out their own positions on medical marijuana, free from the 
pressures of federal drug policy. In the end, he said he chose to stay true 
to his "long-held view" that people deserve compassion in "end-of-life 

The Bush administration has "a very legitimate viewpoint. I respect 'em. I 
love 'em. Obviously, I'm a major W fan," Ehrlich said, using the 
president's nickname.

"But if you look at my views over the years, there are clearly two wings of 
the party on social issues. One is more conservative, and one is more 
libertarian. I belong to the latter, and I always have."

While some Republicans criticized Ehrlich, others stepped forward to praise 
his support for medical marijuana. The issue first came before the Maryland 
General Assembly four years ago, after Darrell Putman, a former Army Green 
Beret and Howard County Farm Bureau director, found that smoking marijuana 
helped relieve the pain of cancer, which killed him in 1999.

Putman convinced then-Del. Donald E. Murphy (R-Baltimore County) to sponsor 
legislation that would have allowed seriously ill people to grow as many as 
seven marijuana plants for personal consumption. Murphy, who now chairs the 
Baltimore County GOP, and Putman's widow, Shay, were on hand yesterday to 
celebrate the bill's signing.

They were joined by Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick), a cancer survivor 
who advocates decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes and won 
election last year against two Republican opponents in one of the most 
conservative districts in the state.

"I think Washington is out of step on this issue," Brinkley said. 
"Compassion needs to be overriding. These people are not criminals."
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