The Maryland Senate on Saturday approved a bill that would legalize medical marijuana, require the state to produce the drug, and allow patients to fill marijuana prescriptions at pharmacies if their doctors agree other treatments had first proved ineffective.
The bill's legislative success is a first in the heavily Democratic but socially conservative state. However, it's unlikely to become law any time soon.
House lawmakers are not expected to vote on the measure before Monday, when the General Assembly adjourns. And Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he thinks there are already "too many drugs" available on the nation's streets.
The House is expected to table the bill and study the potential impacts of the legislation over the summer. Proponents said Saturday that barring a surprise victory in the next two days in the House, they would seek to build on this year's 35-12 vote and reintroduce the measure next year.
Maryland's first step toward legalizing marijuana comes as District lawmakers are studying proposals to begin distributing medical marijuana as early as this fall. Virginia lawmakers killed a similar effort last month before it reached the floor of either chamber of the state's General Assembly. Fourteen states allow for some use of marijuana for medical reasons.
Advocates had pitched Maryland's bill as the "opposite" of troubled efforts to legalize marijuana in California, saying state-run production centers would be closely monitored and licensed.
Pharmacies would also be licensed to distribute the drug. In addition, people could only receive prescriptions from a doctor who'd treated them for a while and could attest that alternatives have not worked.
Proponents also argued the measure is necessary because Maryland is currently sending "mixed messages" to people who use medical marijuana. In 2003, Maryland approved a law limiting sentencing to a $100 fine for people who use marijuana if they have a medical excuse. But critics of that law say it still drives people whose pain could be alleviated by marijuana into alleys to buy from drug dealers.
A handful of opponents attempted to corner lawmakers outside the Senate chamber before the vote. "This is the most important bill of the year," said Joyce Nalepka, of Silver Spring. "Our kids are dying ... [drugs] are more dangerous than war."
The measure passed with no debate. Lawmakers who opposed the measure seemed to exhaust their arguments in a first floor debate on the bill on Thursday.
Still, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. (D-Calvert) one of 10 lawmakers who signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, delayed a previously scheduled vote on the legislation on Friday, telling reporters the measure was "already dead in the House," where two committees have formed a working group to evaluate a similar bill.
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), said the working group supports the idea of medical marijuana but wanted additional time to work on the practical aspects and implementation of a program.
"It's a very important issue and I think the people want it," Miller said. "The bill is very tightly drafted and I think it's a good start. Sometimes it takes one or two years of passing a bill before people get used to it."
The bill was introduced by Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick), a cancer survivor. Senate Republican leader Allan Kittleman (R-Howard) also supported it.
Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), a principal sponsor of the bill issued a statement calling the legislation the best medical marijuana bill in the country and imploring House lawmakers to support it.
"It offers legal protection and safe medical access to patients who are desperately in need and takes every possible measure to prevent abuses."
By Aaron C. Davis
April 10, 2010