Maryland will soon become the 16th state to remove criminal penalties for the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The Maryland Legislature has passed an affirmative defense bill abolishing criminal penalties for patients who use cannabis to relieve the effects of debilitating medical conditions.
After the House of Delegates approved an amended version of the bill over the weekend, the Senate on Monday approved those amendments, sending the bill to the desk of Governor Martin O’Malley. Aides to the Governor have indicated publicly he would sign a medical marijuana defense bill.
“With the passage of this bill, the General Assembly has let seriously ill patients know they are not criminals for seeking relief from their pain and suffering,” said Senator David Brinkley, the primary sponsor of the Senate bill. “It will also establish a framework to build on in moving forward with more comprehensive solutions so that some day soon patients will be able to obtain their medicine in dignity and not on street corners. I thank my colleagues in both chambers for today’s compassionate vote.”
The bill, SB 308, allows individuals diagnosed the debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer and multiple sclerosis, to avoid conviction if charged with the non-public use or possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.
An existing sentencing mitigation would remain part of the law, meaning patients who don’t qualify for the full affirmative defense would still have the opportunity to present evidence of medical necessity and have their sentence reduced to a $100 fine.
In addition, a work group made up of medical, legal, and law enforcement experts will be convened to recommend more comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in Maryland next year.
The bill represents a compromise after the Secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene objected to a more robust proposal that would have established state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries, due to the cost of implementation.
“Today’s vote is a move toward compassion for those who might benefit from this drug,” said Delegate Dan Morhaim, the bill’s House sponsor and the General Assembly’s only licensed physician. “A growing body of evidence suggests marijuana is helpful in treating certain conditions, and seriously ill people who use marijuana to treat such conditions on the advice of their physician should not be considered criminals.”
“Under current law, patients using medical marijuana in Maryland face criminal arrest, prosecution and conviction,” said Senator Jamie Raskin, one of the sponsors in the Senate and a cancer survivor. “Although judges can reduce the penalty to $100 in these cases, we heard testimony from patients who said they have lost their jobs and were haunted for life by being branded as criminals.”
“This legislation declares that severely ill people using medical marijuana are not criminals and will have the opportunity to establish medical necessity as a defense to a possession charge,” Raskin said. “The removal of this threat and the creation of a work group to develop a Maryland model for a comprehensive medical marijuana regime moves us closer to the broader goal of giving patients in Maryland a legal way to obtain doctor-recommended medicine.”
Advocates were also encouraged by the compromise.
“This isn’t a permanent solution, and it’s not everything that patients need, but it allows people suffering from debilitating conditions to sleep a little easier tonight while they wait for full protections,” said Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project