- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Marijuana users who rely on the drug to relieve nausea or other effects of chronic illness would gain some protection against punishment for possession in Maryland under three bills backed by a bipartisan group.
Proposals to decriminalize marijuana for medical use died in the House in 2000 and in the Senate last year, and lawmakers often avoid controversial bills in an election year. But the issue got a boost this week from results of a statewide poll.
In a telephone poll of 833 registered voters likely to cast ballots in November's election, 37 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to support a candidate who backs allowing patients to use marijuana if they have a physician's approval.
Forty percent said a candidate's position on medical marijuana would not affect their vote, 18 percent said they'd be less likely to support such a candidate and 5 percent were undecided.
A medicinal-marijuana law garnered the highest support from independents, at 48 percent. Republicans were split almost evenly, with 29 percent more likely to support a pro-medicinal marijuana candidate and 26 percent less likely.
Among Democrats, 39 percent were more likely to back such a candidate and 13 percent were less likely. The largest percentage of members of both parties 45 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans said a candidate's position on medicinal marijuana would not affect their votes.
The poll was conducted by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications between Jan. 9 and 12 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Defendants found guilty of possessing marijuana would be guaranteed the right to raise medical necessity as a mitigating factor during sentencing under a bill offered by Delegate Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, Charles County Republican. Mr. Hutchins, a retired state trooper and former commandant of the state police training academy, voted against decriminalizing marijuana when it came before the House Judiciary Committee in 2000.
But he said he was moved by what he'd heard about patients' suffering and the relief marijuana gave those not helped by other palliatives. Mr. Hutchins said he was also encouraged to learn that a judge he respected had allowed medicinal use to be considered in a trial.
"It's still a crime, but it won't take anything away from judges, and it's the right thing to do," Mr. Hutchins said.
Delegate Dana Dembrow, Montgomery County Democrat, a lawyer who has backed decriminalizing marijuana for medical need, is sponsoring legislation that would allow medical necessity as a defense at trial.
Juries or judges, as finders of fact, would decide in each case whether marijuana was needed.
Delegate Donald E. Murphy, a Republican who represents Howard and Baltimore counties, said he will file a bill to decriminalize medicinal use again this year. But he said he plans to add a provision that the measure is not a step toward legalization, nor is it meant to advocate recreational marijuana use.
Eight states have passed laws that allow patients to use marijuana when other drugs don't help such debilitating effects as nausea and weight loss.
Last year, in a case targeting California's marijuana-buyers clubs, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can enforce federal prohibitions on marijuana.
But federal authorities have never arrested a patient or caregiver in states where medicinal use of marijuana is approved, said Billy Rogers, director of state policies for the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

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