A Maryland commission will take its first step Wednesday toward developing a plan to legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The 18-member, state-appointed group is scheduled to work through May 2012 on the feasibility of legalizing the drug for medical use. Medical marijuana is now legal in 17 states and D.C.
Medical marijuana has received increasing bipartisan support in Maryland's Democrat-controlled General Assembly, with legislators even floating a proposal this year to set up a state-run production and distribution system.
The plan was shot down by state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, who argued it needed several more years of research.
Many doctors contend that marijuana reduces pain, nausea and loss of appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy and suffering from such diseases as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. Dr. Sharfstein in February pointed out remaining concerns over the drug's potential negative effects, which include memory loss and pregnancy complications.
Sponsors revised their bill to increase protections for medical users who are caught using or possessing the drug. The revised bill, which allows such users to claim medical necessity as a legal defense, was signed into law in May.
The law allows for the acquittal of defendants charged with marijuana use or possession with the intent to use, if they can prove through medical records or a physician's testimony that they have an illness for which the drug is likely to provide "therapeutic or palliative relief."
The state formerly treated medical-marijuana possession as a misdemeanor subject to a $100 fine. Non-medical possession is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum one year in jail and $1,000 fine.
While a growing number of states have legalized medical marijuana, the trend has raised the concern of the Justice Department. While agency officials have largely ignored medical use — preferring not to pursue sick, small-scale users — they have contended that federal law prohibits the drug's use or cultivation, regardless of state law.
Department officials sent a letter last month to federal prosecutors that stated officials should keep a close eye on cultivators and sellers to potentially stamp out large-scale distribution.
Despite concerns from Dr. Sharfstein and federal officials, medical-marijuana proponents have expressed optimism that Maryland is on its way to legalizing the drug eventually.
Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and physician who sponsored the proposal to legalize medical marijuana and will serve on the work group, said during the 2010 General Assembly session that he is happy to work with state officials to improve the plan.
"We'll all work hard to see what we can accomplish this year," said Dr. Morhaim, the Assembly's only licensed medical doctor. "We want to have the best product possible that does the most good."
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