ANNAPOLIS – A medical marijuana bill that would minimize penalties for chronically ill patients caught using the illegal drug has made it to the governor for the first time in four attempts.
The Maryland Senate passed a medical marijuana bill Wednesday, exactly a week after the House approved an identical bill, and now, the only hurdle left is for Gov. Robert Ehrlich to sign it into law.
The governor has not taken a position on the bill, but he supports the concept, said his spokesperson Henry Fawell.
The hour-long debate before the vote had proponents focusing on compassion, while opponents argued the bill was merely "foot-in-the-door legislation" that would lead to the legalization of marijuana.
The bill passed on a 29-17 nonpartisan vote, with eight Democrats and nine Republicans voting against it.
"This issue cuts across all of our aisles and ideologies ... and geographies," said Republican state Sen. David Brinkley, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a type of lymphoma, in 1989 and is in remission.
The bill that passed was very different from the original bill, which called for the Board of Physician Quality Assurance to oversee a program to issue identification cards to patients who used marijuana for medical purposes.
Now, the bill provides an opportunity for a defendant in possession of marijuana to introduce evidence that the drug was "of medical necessity." If the defense is successful, the defendant would only face a maximum $100 fine.
Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. voted against the bill to show his support for the original bill, which he called "a very well-thought-out bill, a great bill," while the amended version is "a lesser bill," he said.
During the debate, supporters argued that marijuana provides relief for cancer patients on chemotherapy braving symptoms such as nausea and loss of appetite. It also helps those suffering from illnesses such as AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or Crohn's disease.
Patients suffering from cancer or AIDS at the end of their lives sometimes suffer "long, slow agonizing deaths. Dying is worse than the death sometimes," said Democratic Sen. Delores Kelley of Baltimore.
The most compelling testimony came from Democratic Sen. Nathaniel Exum, who recounted the battle his 25-year-old daughter waged with cancer. It ultimately claimed her life.
Her treatments left her so nauseated she was unable to eat. Exum said if marijuana could have helped her at the time, he would have gotten it for his daughter.
"I urge you to have compassion. You never know when you might be in the same position," he said, silencing the opposition.
However, opponents, such as Minority Leader Lowell Stoltzfus, had already argued that the bill is "a guise to begin legalizing marijuana."
"There is nothing about compassion regarding the step we're taking — legalizing a dangerous drug," said Republican Sen. Larry Haines. "The Legislature is wrong in taking this position."
It isn't right to claim that certain things are absolutely illegal, and then make exceptions that permit them under certain circumstances — it creates a "bifurcated system of justice," said Democratic Sen. John Astle.
Under federal law, any use of marijuana is illegal and the Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana use for any medical condition.
"If we do have a war on drugs, can we please remove the sick and wounded from the battlefield?" said Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a marijuana policy reform organization in the District.
Approval, Mirken said, represents "a historic day and a positive step" and it is especially vindicating that Maryland is about to pass this type of legislation right in the "backyard of the White House."