- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Maryland senators yesterday got their first look at a proposal that would legalize marijuana for medicinal use statewide.
The measure evoked a hostile response from Sen. Walter Baker, who, as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has the power to move or hold the bill.
"We all know this bill isn't going anywhere," said Mr. Baker, Upper Eastern Shore Democrat, interrupting another senator's query on the bill. "Let witnesses put their show on."
"In all due respect, Mr. Chairman, this bill will have an uphill battle, but it's worthy of debate," said Sen. Perry Sfikas, Baltimore Democrat.
"Ask a question if you want, but don't make a speech," Mr. Baker replied.
But Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates decriminalization, said he believes Mr. Baker's reaction could work in the bill's favor.
"I think he marginalized his own position, looked insensitive to patients and insulted his colleagues," some of whom are said to be undecided on the issue, Mr. Kampia said.
If the bill passes the 11-member committee, it likely would be a close vote.
The proposal's original sponsor Delegate Donald E. Murphy, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Howard counties has filed an identical bill in the House.
The House Judiciary Committee rejected Mr. Murphy's bill last year, 11-7, but several delegates who did not support it then said they were sympathetic and hoped they could vote for the bill this year. That House committee will hear the new bill today.
Under the new measure, the state health department would authorize patients to use marijuana medicinally and issue identification cards that would protect them from arrest.
Health department certification also would allow a patient or a caregiver, if the patient were unable to cultivate up to seven plants and prepare the marijuana for use.
To qualify, patients would have to get a physician's recommendation or provide medical records that indicate they could benefit from marijuana use.
Although decriminalizing marijuana for medicinal use in Maryland could protect authorized persons from arrest by state and local police, anyone who used or possessed it would still be violating federal law.
But several law professors and Mr. Kampia said federal agents are not enforcing marijuana laws against medicinal users or even small-scale users.
Over five years that medicinal marijuana use has been legal under some state laws, no physician has lost a license and no patient or caregiver has been prosecuted, said Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor.
Kelly Paige, manager of Oregon's medicinal-marijuana program, said the issue was controversial when that state became the first to enact a law that established a registry for legitimate medical users.
"Now it's so mainstream that Kaiser-Permanente has developed a form letter to use when registering patients for the program," Ms. Paige said.
She said a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent calls her occasionally to check if persons are registered to use marijuana medicinally. During three years the program has been operating in Oregon, she has found reason to revoke only one registration.
After Ms. Paige spoke, legislators heard almost two hours of testimony from caregivers and patients who argued that severely ill persons who find no relief from legal medications should be able to use marijuana without fear of arrest or jeopardizing their families.
Some senators said they worried that allowing marijuana plants in the home would make it easy and tempting for children to use.
Eric Sterling, former counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said no laws now require parents to lock up dangerous prescription drugs.
"If we delay thinking somewhere there is a perfect bill, we will destroy this opportunity," said Mr. Sterling, of Chevy Chase.
"I think it's putting children at risk," said Sen. Larry Haines, Carroll County Republican.
Doug Steigler of the Family Protection Lobby agreed.
"I almost feel guilty for testifying against this bill, but there are so many problems with growing and distribution of this drug, we have to go about it in a different way," Mr. Steigler said.
Illnesses that could qualify a patient to use marijuana include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease.
Kathleen M. Tucker, a Takoma Park lawyer arrested last year when her teen-age daughter turned her in to authorities for growing marijuana, asked the committee to add migraine headaches, the condition from which she suffers, to the list of qualifying illnesses.
In documents circulated before the hearing, Joyce Nalepka of Montgomery County, a staunch opponent of the bill, denounced the medicinal marijuana initiative as "a fraud and a hoax" funded by "four fat-cat billionaires," including international financier George Soros.
Mrs. Nalepka argues that the effort is really an attempt to open the door to full decriminalization of marijuana for any use.


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