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By ASHLEY M. LATTA
ANNAPOLIS (December 01, 2011) -- A medical marijuana work group created in the spring by the legislature will recommend by Friday two models for new legislation. One would assign medical marijuana distribution solely to academic institutions, while the other would permit physicians to recommend its use as treatment and establish state-regulated growers and distributors.
In May, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed SB 308, a law that provided an affirmative legal defense for marijuana use by patients who have been diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition that is "severe and resistant to conventional medicine."
But the new law does not permit the possession of medical marijuana in Maryland as lawmakers agreed that further research was needed before legalization. Instead, the law created the Maryland Medical Marijuana Model Program Work Group and tasked it with making recommendations for new legislation.
"It's still a crime to possess marijuana for medical use," said Debby Miran, a chemist, work group member, and leukemia survivor.
The law passed in the spring also does not address what proponents believe to be the greatest requirement of medical marijuana legislation - access.
"There's no way for a patient to get the marijuana other than a drug dealer, and it's a felony to grow it," said Karen O'Keefe, a member of the work group and director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington.
Members of the work group set out to create a model that would allow for further research of medical marijuana and create more comprehensive legislation than the current law.
The alternative models that emerged overlap considerably. Both outline conditions for enforcement, regulation and accountability in great detail. Neither is without possible setbacks.
The key to the first piece of legislation is that the distribution of medical marijuana would occur only through academic institutions. Those institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University or the University of Maryland, would control distribution to patients.
But the institutions would take on the risk of losing federal funding because distribution would still violate federal law.
The second drafted bill is modeled after earlier proposals in Maryland, as well as other state laws. It would allow doctors to apply for permission to recommend medical marijuana and require those physicians to participate in a rigorous training program.
But physicians could not physically handle or distribute the drug, and patients would still require a legal avenue of access.
Miran said she turned to medical marijuana after medications following her bone marrow transplant kept her from being able to eat, causing her to lose 40 pounds.
"That was a horrible decision for us to make," she said. "It wasn't legal."
But she didn't have any other options.
"I was a walking skeleton," she said.
The most common diagnoses in which medical marijuana may be recommended include certain cancers, AIDS and severe ongoing, chronic or neuropathic pain conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
"The goal of the legislation, from my point of view, is to have medical marijuana be available to those folks who would benefit," said Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, the only licensed physician in the General Assembly, and a member of the work group.
By Friday, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and a work group member, is scheduled to present the group's findings to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the House Health and Government Operations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.
During the 2010 session, the Maryland Senate passed a bill that would protect patients from arrest for possession of medical marijuana and establish licensed centers to cultivate and distribute. Opposition from Sharfstein and state delegates prevented passage in the House.
The primary legal stipulation in the amended bill that did pass last spring was the establishment of an affirmative defense for the use or possession of marijuana for medical purposes by patients with severe conditions resistant to conventional treatments.
The law does not protect patients from arrest. It merely provides a defense in court if the patient can prove medical necessity.
Once the legislation prepared by the work group becomes available, it will be up to state lawmakers to decide whether to pass a more comprehensive bill.
"I would imagine that at least one of the members of the legislature would introduce at least one piece of [medical marijuana] legislation," O'Keefe said.
A 2011 poll found that 72 percent of Maryland voters support a bill that would allow patients with serious illnesses to purchase and use medical marijuana with their doctors' approval after the use of conventional treatments. The poll, conducted February 18 -20, by Public Policy Polling, surveyed 1,076 registered voters.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. The federal government has not legalized the use of marijuana, classified by the FDA as a Schedule I drug, under any circumstances.
The current Maryland law does not protect defendants charged with marijuana use in public or those in possession of more than a single ounce.