Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a new medical marijuana bill and a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The Maryland General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine, and a bill that allows doctors to prescribe marijuana and dispensaries to fill prescriptions for patients.
“We have a workable bill. I think it’s responsible, I think it’s safe,” said Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), a longtime advocate for medical marijuana and sponsor of the bill that passed. “It’s just like any other medicine, it should be another tool in the toolbox.”
Doctors will have to apply to Maryland’s medical marijuana commission to become certified to prescribe the drug, and will be able to prescribe 30-day supplies of marijuana to patients they have on-going relationships with.
“The most important thing for us is that patients are actually able to access the medicine they need for their conditions, and having medical marijuana available through dispensaries is the most important component of that,” said Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project.
Initially, there will be 15 dispensary licenses available. Growers can also operate as dispensaries, Morhaim said. The commission is expected to pass regulations governing how the new bill will be carried out by Sept. 15.
“I feel really good about where we are,” Morhaim said. “Last year’s bill didn’t work but it did set up a framework, it set up a commission, it set up a structure.”
House Bill 1101, signed into law by O’Malley last May, established the independent, 12-person Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission. The bill stipulated that a medical marijuana program would have to be under the direction of an academic medical center, defined as a hospital that operates a medical residency program and conducts research with human subjects overseen by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Although regulations for the academic medical centers had yet to be adopted, officials at the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins University indicated to legislators they did not intend to participate in the program.
Under the new bill, any doctor certified by the commission will be able to prescribe a 30-day supply, the size of which will be determined by the doctor and dispensary, as well as the route of administration for the marijuana.
“There’s specific language that says that the commission is encouraged to be sure that there are appropriate different kinds of strains, shown to work with the different ways they’re processed,” Morhaim said, which could include tinctures and oils.
There is a large data collection component in the bill, which will allow the commission to track patient outcomes and other statistics, and help guide future decisions.
Morhaim expects dispensaries to open within three to six months after the commission passes its regulations in September. After a year, the commission will reevaluate the program and the number of dispensaries, taking into account geography and other factors.
“The key thing is to get medicine into the hands of patients under appropriate circumstances, learn from that and determine what will be the adjustments,” Morhaim said.
As for the decriminalization bill, Yeung did not have as much high praise, calling it one of the weakest bills in the country because of the low possession amount and the increasing fines.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” she said. “The question of a criminal market remaining in place came up during the floor debate in the house, and that’s still an important issue, which is why a system that would tax and regulate marijuana would be best.”
The decriminalization bill, which mirrors a bill Sen. Bobby Zirkin introduced during last year’s session, would impose a $100 civil fine on possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana for a first offense, with fines increasing to $250 and $500 for the second and third offenses, respectively.
“It’s the right public policy,” Zirkin said. “All this bill is, is a recognition that this pseudo-criminalization is an ineffective policy.”
Zirkin said drug use and drugged driving has not increased in any of the 17 other states that have decriminalized marijuana.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Del. Heather Mizeur, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown all said they support decriminalization. And although Gov. Martin O’Malley was hesitant earlier in the session, he signed the bill Monday.
“I think he became aware that this was the politically smart move and, especially since he has national ambitions, it would have been career suicide to veto this bill,” said Yeung.