By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS (March 31, 2009) - When a police officer asked her what she was doing behind a van in the park, Pamela Hughes told him the honest truth.
"I said I was smoking a cannabis cigarette," she said.
She presented the stunned policeman with a written recommendation from her doctor and a copy of Maryland's "Compassionate Use Act," which reduces the penalties for possession of medical marijuana.
"I honestly thought that I wasn't breaking the law," Hughes said.
Rather than take her word for it, the officer called for backup that included a canine unit, she said.
Hughes ended up spending several hours in jail. She fought the charges and won, but only after a lot of time, stress and money—three things that her fibromyalgia, a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain and fatigue, and a reoccurrence of stage IV cancer were already monopolizing.
Hughes and several other patients told the House Judiciary Committee last week that while Maryland's Compassionate Use Act was a step forward for its time, the law merely provides them with a false sense of security.
The patients testified on behalf of a bill that would establish a task force to evaluate the effectiveness and fairness of the current law and consider whether medical marijuana should become legal in the state. They said medical marijuana provides relief for certain ailments in ways no other medication can replicate.
No one testified against the bill, and a vote on the legislation has not been scheduled.
Medical marijuana has been legalized in 13 states, including California, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said recently that federal law enforcement will no longer target providers that are operating within state law, a major departure from the Bush administration's stance on the issue.
The Darryl Putnam Compassionate Use Act, passed by the General Assembly in 2003, was a compromise between those advocating the legalization of medical marijuana and those against such a move.
The act is named after Putnam, a former Green Beret and Howard County Farm Bureau director who advocated for the legalization of medical marijuana. He died of cancer in 1999.
The Compassionate Use Act reduced the penalties for marijuana possession to a maximum $100 fine, provided a patient has a recommendation from a medical doctor. However, patients still have to buy their "medicine" on the street and face the health and legal risks inherent in doing so.
Those with drug offenses on their records could also face eviction from subsidized housing.
John McCarthy, an AIDS activist who has been HIV-positive for 18 years, said that medical marijuana has allowed him to reduce his pill intake from 45 to 13 pills a day. Most of those pills had been prescribed merely to alleviate the side effects of other pills, which include vomiting, headaches and neuropathy, a condition "where the nerve endings burn."
McCarthy, who lives in subsidized housing, said a drug conviction under the present law could cause someone to be evicted from public housing no matter how old they were or what their condition was.
Eric Sterling, a Chevy Chase lawyer and president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said the law needs to be revised.
"It's really barbaric to think that we would prosecute sick people," he said. "These (cases) should never go to court."
The American College of Physicians, which calls itself the "largest medical-specialty organization and second-largest physician group in the United States," has endorsed the use of non-smoked marijuana in cases where it has been proven to have therapeutic value.
A 2008 policy paper said the organization "strongly urges protection from criminal or civil penalties for patients who use medical marijuana as permitted under state laws." It advocated further research on the issue and said that "the science on medical marijuana should not be obscured or hindered by the debate surrounding the legalization of marijuana for general use."
Americans for Safe Access, a group that advances legalizing marijuana for therapeutics and research, and brought many of the witnesses together in Annapolis last week, was careful to clarify its intentions.
Caren Woodson, director of government affairs for the group, said the goal was to have safe and legal access to medical marijuana for patients and researchers—"and that's it."
"That's the line, and we don't cross over it," she said.
However, some say others are crossing that line every day.
Jerrod Menz, president of A Better Tomorrow Treatment Center Inc., a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Murrieta, Calif., said some young people in his state are faking back pain and other hard-to-prove ailments in order to legally obtain marijuana. He said a client in his early 20s recently admitted telling his doctor he was suffering from foot pain, which helped him obtain a medical marijuana card after a five-minute examination.
Menz said doctors need to use more care in their examinations to better prevent people from abusing the intent of medical marijuana laws. He said that some problems could be prevented by having the federal government regulate medical marijuana like any other drug, although he did not endorse such a move.
For Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, federal law is the line that shouldn't be crossed—and the reason for the 2003 compromise legislation in the first place.
"How can you pass something that's against federal law?" he said. "That really is the bottom line."
Delegate Henry Heller, D-Montgomery, the sponsor of the bill, said the task force would also consider establishing research programs at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland medical schools. He said this would not only allow further research on medical marijuana, but also help provide a safe product.
As the law stands, Heller said glaucoma and cancer patients at Leisure World, a retirement community in Silver Spring where he lives and represents, have to buy their marijuana on the street.
"It's not the safest way to buy medicine," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.