- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — A program to legalize medical marijuana in Maryland would likely put distribution in the hands of academic-research programs and make the drug available to a limited number of select patients, state officials said Wednesday.

Members of a state-appointed work group to study and craft new medical marijuana legislation said they will likely pursue a plan that tightly regulates distribution and use of the drug, to steer clear of federal concerns and avoid abuse seen in some other states that allow the drug through doctors’ prescriptions and dispensaries.

“I wouldn’t say this is necessarily legalizing in a very broad sense,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and chairman of the work group. “This is a pretty narrow concept that, conceivably, could be helpful. It recognizes that there are potential benefits and potential risks.”

Some state legislators have sought to make medical marijuana more available to many seriously ill residents who are undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from diseases such as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis, and could receive relief from the drug.

The General Assembly passed a law this year that established the work group and allows medical marijuana users to now be acquitted of possession charges if they can prove medical necessity.

While medical marijuana is currently legal in 17 states and the District, the Justice Department has contended that its distribution still technically violates federal laws.

Agency officials have mostly turned a blind eye to the drug’s medical use but have expressed increasing concerns over its widespread availability in some states and have even raided some commercial distributors.

State officials said Wednesday they could best avoid such issues by allowing only distribution through state-approved academic centers.

While Dr. Sharfstein said it is now “hard to tell’ how the state’s program would look, he said the most likely scenario would involve a system in which the centers would request state permission to run treatment programs, and would then select qualified patients to whom they would provide carefully monitored dosages.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick Republican and work group member, said Maryland is one of many states that hopes to allow medical marijuana “in a conscientious way,” but that often-vague federal disapproval has stood in the way.

“These patients don’t have the luxury of time, and they sure as heck don’t understand the back and forth” between federal and state officials, said Mr. Brinkley, who sought legislation last year to legalize the drug for medical use. “Our big issue is trying to put something together so we can say ‘Here are the guidelines.’ “

Work group members are expected to be split into three subgroups, in which they will set criteria to determine treatment regulations and patient and provider eligibility, address federal concerns, and pursue grants for a potential program.

Dr. Sharfstein said the work group hopes to pave the way for the new medical marijuana legislation, which he said could be enacted within the next one or two years, at the earliest.

If a law is passed, he said, academic centers would likely have to propose their own medical marijuana programs for approval by state health officials. The academic centers would then use an established set of criteria to select patients.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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