- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

Maryland antidrug activist Joyce Nalepka said she was barred from the public ceremony in which Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed a medical-marijuana bill into law.

Mrs. Nalepka, who fought against the bill that reduces penalties for possession of marijuana for medical reasons, said police singled her out of the crowd and turned her away from the bill-signing ceremony in the governor’s reception hall in the State House.

“I was casually walking along with the crowd when a police officer came to me and said, ‘You can’t go in,’” said Mrs. Nalepka, a Silver Spring grandmother who for 25 years has led grass-roots opposition to drug legalization.

Mrs. Nalepka said she asked for an explanation and was told by the officer: “Those are my orders.”

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said he was unaware of orders to bar Mrs. Nalepka from the ceremony and questioned her version of events. He said it was “highly unlikely” the governor would have given such orders.

“That’s just not the governor’s style,” Mr. Fawell said. “The governor has always welcomed viewpoints that conflict with his own. He considers it part of the democratic process.”

Mrs. Nalepka said when she demanded a further explanation from the officer, his supervisor came over and “curtly repeated that I wasn’t allowed to go in there and that I needed to leave the [second] floor,” of the State House, home to the governor’s office and reception room.

“I was outraged and stayed until I was certain he was going to physically remove me,” Mrs. Nalepka said. “Not wanting to embarrass myself, I did leave. But the more I think of their gestapo tactics, the angrier I get.”

Mr. Fawell said he saw Mrs. Nalepka on the second floor but witnessed no confrontation with police.

“Those who spoke with her, including myself, were very courteous and happy to listen to her remarks,” he said. “I didn’t see anybody give her a hard time or escort her out of the building.”

In signing the bill, Mr. Ehrlich defied White House pressure for a veto to become the first Republican governor to sign a bill keeping medical marijuana patients from going to jail.

Closer to home, Mr. Ehrlich bucked a prolific letter-writing, e-mail and telephone lobbying campaign by Mrs. Nalepka and her group, Drug-Free Kids.

Maryland law now recognizes a “medical necessity” defense in marijuana-possession trials. Defendants who prove a medicinal need to possess the drug will face a misdemeanor conviction, a maximum $100 fine and no jail time.

The law previously prescribed sentences of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for all cases of marijuana possession.

Since the bill passed the Maryland Senate by a 29-17 vote and the House by a 73-62 vote, Mrs. Nalepka, a lifelong Republican, had implored the governor to veto it.

She and other opponents of the law say softening penalties for possession of illegal drugs sends the wrong message to children.

They also point out that medical marijuana doesn’t have U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and federal law still classifies marijuana as a dangerous and illegal narcotic.

Proponents of the law say smoking marijuana helps people with AIDS, cancer and other illnesses because it restores their appetites and relieves nausea from chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Mr. Ehrlich, who supported similar legislation as a U.S. congressman, signaled his intention to sign the bill from the start, though there were rumors his position had wavered as the veto deadline approached.

He dispelled those rumors Thursday by signing the bill.

Mrs. Nalepka said she was “horribly disappointed” by the governor.

“I think he should be removed,” she said. “Civilized people don’t poison their children…. The message to the kids is horrific. He’s saying to all the kids, ‘It’s OK by me to use marijuana.’”

The Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C.-based group dedicated to reforming marijuana laws that also lobbied heavily in support of the Maryland law, praised Mr. Ehrlich for his courage in signing the bill.

“Maryland’s elected officials have rightly rejected the position of a hostile White House and drug czar, who believe that marijuana-using cancer patients should be incarcerated like common criminals,” said Robert Kampia, the organization’s executive director.

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