- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Maryland lawmaker is attempting to salvage a bill that would legalize medical marijuana after the state’s top health official testified that provisions regulating the drug’s use and distribution were inadequate.

Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, Baltimore County Democrat and the bill’s co-sponsor, said he is working to address concerns raised Monday by Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH).

Dr. Sharfstein testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing that although he thinks the state eventually could make marijuana available to residents with many severe illnesses, it first needs to determine how to fund and supervise such a program.

He said he remains concerned about the drug’s potential negative effects, such as memory loss and pregnancy complications, and he called for “at least several years” of research and planning before the drug is made available in the state.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, in the past has shown reservations about the legalization of medical marijuana. His office said Tuesday that Dr. Sharfstein’s concerns were “legitimate.”

Mr. Morhaim, the House’s only medical doctor, said it was uncertain whether the bill’s supporters could address Dr. Sharfstein’s concerns before the end of this year’s General Assembly session, scheduled for April 11.

“I’m happy to work with the health secretary, and we’ll all work hard to see what we can accomplish this year,” he said. “We want to have the best product possible that does the most good.”

The House appeared poised this year to pass a medical marijuana bill after it allowed a similar bill passed last year by the Senate to stall. This year’s House bill had 61 sponsors, just 10 short of the 71 votes needed for passage.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

Mr. Morhaim has worked to legalize medical marijuana for the past two years, arguing it has been shown to reduce pain, nausea and loss of appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy and suffering from such diseases as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. His bill would allow patients to receive medical prescriptions for marijuana and acquire it from certified dispensaries and pharmacies. DHMH and the state Department of Agriculture would oversee growth and distribution of the drug.

The blunt criticism from Dr. Sharfstein, appointed to the O’Malley administration in January after serving as a deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, took many observers by surprise. His predecessor, John Colmers, took no official position on the bill passed by the Senate last year.

While Dr. Sharfstein acknowledged reports of the drug’s positive effects and praised the bill’s efforts to regulate distribution, he said more research is needed to determine whether such regulation is feasible and whether the drug’s positives outweigh its negatives.