Monday, February 1, 2010

Marijuana conundrum

Everyone has heard the horror stories from California, which after
passing a 1996 law legalizing the medical use of marijuana for patients
with cancer and other serious illnesses found itself awash in pot shops
and physicians who seemed all too eager to hand out cannabis
prescriptions to anyone who asked, regardless of the complaint.
California is belatedly moving to correct the worst abuses of that law,
but the sheer number of loosely regulated pot dispensaries and
pharmacies that sprang up after its passage is making reform an uphill

We certainly don't want to see California's experience replicated in
Maryland, where a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical use is
pending in the General Assembly this year. Opinion remains divided among
the medical community over the potential therapeutic benefits and risks
of medical marijuana. Yet there's enough anecdotal and other evidence
suggesting it can ease the suffering of some patients diagnosed with
chronic and terminal illnesses that the idea shouldn't be dismissed out
of hand.

Maryland already acknowledges - and in some ways actually encourages -
this ambivalence. The state's current law on the subject, passed six
years ago, doesn't explicitly exempt the medical use of marijuana from
criminal prosecution, but it does allow people accused of possessing
small quantities of the drug to claim "medical necessity" as a defense.
If a judge accepts their claim, they can get off with a fine not
exceeding $100 - less than some parking tickets.

The problem with the current statute, of course, is that it still forces
people who do have a genuine medical necessity to break the law - and
risk being slapped with a criminal record - simply in order to get the
treatment they need. And it makes judges, rather than doctors, the
ultimate arbiters of what is medically necessary.

That's unacceptable, especially given last year's decision by the
Justice Department to stop aggressively pursuing medical marijuana
patients in the 14 states that have laws allowing the drug's use. We
always thought the Bush administration's claim that medical marijuana
was a mortal threat to the republic was overblown. Doctors routinely
prescribe far more potent medications to patients - including
derivatives of cocaine - and the country hasn't collapsed.

The legislation proposed by Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County
Democrat, and Republican Sen. David Brinkley of Frederick would allow
patients with debilitating illnesses such as seizures, severe chronic
pain or severe nausea as a result of cancer treatment to register with
the state and to purchase marijuana from state-licensed dispensaries and
pharmacies. Mr. Morhaim, an internist and emergency medical physician,
says the goal is to make medical marijuana as readily available as other
medications currently in use by physicians, and with the same legal and
medical safeguards.

To avoid the problems of the California law, the bill would require
patients to get approval only from doctors with whom they have a
long-standing relationship, and it would also prohibit them from growing
marijuana on their own. As long as the controls are in place to restrict
purchases to patients with valid prescriptions at authorized
dispensaries and pharmacies, we see little chance of this turning into a
California-style debacle or even the opening skirmish in a full-scale
legalization campaign.

No one would deny a seriously ill patient the benefits of anesthesia
during major surgery, or arrest him or her for taking painkillers
afterward. To the extent that medical marijuana holds the potential to
provide a similar therapeutic benefit, why should anyone have to risk
going to jail for taking a medication that his or her doctor has decided
is medically necessary?

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