Maryland Medical Marijuana Law Signed by Governor

Posted May 2, 2013 in Crime Marijuana by

Doctor holding a pill bottle with a picture of a marijuana leaf on it.

Hemera/Thinkstock

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill into law today partially legalizing medical use of marijuana.

The bill was previously approved by the state Senate in a 42-4 vote.

The law comes riding a wave of popularity for liberalization of marijuana laws. In April a national Pew study found that 52 percent of respondents were in favor of outright legalization, and a poll released yesterday by Fox News found an overwhelming 85 percent of Americans in favor of legalization for medical use.

However, due to its unusually restrictive nature, the state will not be considered one with full access for medicinal use by advocates. “Maryland will  not be listed on the National NORML website as being the 19th state to pass legislation for medical marijuana,” a spokesperson for the Maryland chapter of the legalize-it group said. “NORML’s official stance on the bill is that we are not against HB1101, but nor are we in support of it as it does very little to help the patients in Maryland who really need to be able to have safe access now. The bill, we know, will only help a small number of patients and the majority will see no benefit.”

 

Hospitals Only

The Maryland law only allows marijuana to be distributed through public teaching hospitals, unique among state statutes. It includes language that allows the governor to suspend the program if state employees fall under jeopardy of prosecution by the federal government.

The bill creates a commission to oversee the program and mandates that research centers must supply information on patients and caregivers to the health department and law enforcement. Due to bureaucracy it might not be until 2015 or later that the program is actually up and running and patients can get legal access to their pot.

A work group recommended a much less restrictive law to the legislature, but was overridden by the stricter version backed by a state official.

Dan Riffle headshot

Dan Riffle

Despite the steep requirements, advocates still cheer an incremental step. “We’re excited that the bill passed,” says Dan Riffle, an attorney and deputy director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s not a negative development. It’s a step forward.”

“That being said, obviously it’s not our preferred legislation,” Riffle says, citing concern that hospitals might be reluctant to participate for fear that they could lose funding, or even expose doctors to federal felony charges.

The medical system in the University of Maryland has indicated it will probably not participate, while Johns Hopkins has taken a wait-and-see approach. Other smaller hospitals not as dependent on federal funding could be more inclined to sign on.

 

Softened Penalties

Maryland already has a law in place softening penalties for medical users, by allowing people caught with pot to make an affirmative defense that they need it for medical purposes. The state passed a law in 2003 reducing fines for medical use to $100; in 2011 they updated the law to drop the fine altogether for people possessing less than an ounce for medical use.

Last year the state also reduced penalties for people caught with fewer than 10 grams for recreational use to a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, down from a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Now medical users will be able to get hold of it legally — eventually.

“We’re at least two fiscal years away from any patients receiving any medical
marijuana,” Riffle says.

Illinois is likely to take Maryland’s place as the official 19th medical marijuana state. The state House of Representatives voted in April to approve a bill which has moved on to state Senate consideration. The Senate previously passed a medical marijuana bill in 2009.

The Illinois bill is relatively restrictive in its own right. Most notably, it includes a list of conditions under which patients can qualify for marijuana use, and chronic pain is not among them — chronic pain being the symptom for which a majority of users in some other states get their licenses.

Furthermore, the Illinois bill would mandate that patients can only receive prescriptions from doctors who are already treating them for the underlying condition — no doctor shopping to get a recommendation.

In other reefer-related news, Montana enacted a law in April to establish a limit of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood for drivers, over which they are considered impaired and subject to criminal charges.

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