- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2011

ANNAPOLIS | The Senate passed a bill Thursday that would allow people arrested for marijuana use to claim medical necessity as a legal defense.

Senators voted 41-6 to allow defendants to be found not guilty of marijuana use or possession with intent to use if they prove through medical records or a physician’s testimony that they have an illness for which the drug is “likely to [provide] therapeutic or palliative relief.”

The legislation now moves to the House.

Right now, Maryland law classifies medical-marijuana use a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine. Nonmedical use is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Senators modified their proposal after a House bill that included a state-run production and distribution system stalled in the chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the agency lacked the resources for such a plan and suggested years more study to find a better one.

The Senate bill also establishes a work group within that agency to develop a plan to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Americans for Safe Access, the country’s largest medical-marijuana advocacy group, gave a tepid endorsement to the Senate plan.

“Rather than endure another failed attempt to pass meaningful medical-marijuana policy in Maryland, patients have instead decided to support this stopgap measure,” said Caren Woodson, the group’s government affairs director. “It’s not ideal, but the bill will help patients avoid what is now a guaranteed conviction if arrested.”

In other General Assembly news, the Senate voted 32-15 to require the governor to decide within 180 days whether an inmate sentenced to life in prison should be paroled. An inmate would be paroled if approved by a state commission and if the governor makes no decision. The House passed a measure that requires the governor to decide within 90 days.

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