Medical marijuana for Maryland?

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Carol Sorgen

After battling chronic leukemia for a decade, Lutherville resident Deborah Miran had exhausted all her options, from approved drugs to clinical trials. Her remaining hope to keep the condition in check was a bone marrow transplant.

Fortunately, Miran’s sister was an ideal match, and in 2006, Miran, now 56, underwent the arduous process to receive the life-giving bone marrow.

Following the transplant, the immuno-supressant drugs she had to take left her nauseated, with no appetite, no sense of taste, and no energy, even as her body was working mightily to rebuild new cells. As a result, she was losing about two pounds a week for more than two months.

“My doctors wanted me to eat more but I just couldn’t,” Miran said. Then her oncologist commented that marijuana might spark her appetite. Though illegal and unavailable through her doctor, Miran felt she had no choice.

To this day, Miran doesn’t know how her husband found the marijuana she needed — “he made a few calls” — but she does know that it was the “single most helpful thing” in relieving her nausea and increasing her appetite to halt her weight loss.

“It did the trick,” said Miran, pointing out that she used the marijuana solely for medical reasons, and once her weight had stabilized in about two months she no longer had any use for it.

Miran views using marijuana for medical purposes as akin to taking a Tylenol for a headache. She said it’s a short-acting drug and clears the system quickly.

She would take a few “hits” before dinner, feel hungry about 20 minutes later and have something to eat, and then the effects were gone. “When the need is no longer there, the drug is no longer there,” she said.

Legislature considers legalization

Miran’s personal experience has made her passionate about the bill now before the state legislature that would make Maryland the nation’s 16th state allowing physician-approved use of medical marijuana.

The chief sponsor of HB291 is physician and Delegate Dan Morhaim (R-Baltimore County). The billed is cross-filed in the Senate as SB308 by Republican Jamie Raskin and Democrat David Brinkley, both cancer survivors.

The Maryland Senate passed similar legislation last year by an overwhelming margin of 35-12, but it was held up when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Vallario assigned the bill to a workgroup rather than giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down.

In the current legislative session, Delegate Morhaim, who is board-certified in both Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine, has filed a new medical marijuana bill that would allow patients whose doctors recommend marijuana to purchase it from regulated dispensing centers and protect them from arrest.

Maryland’s current law provides medical marijuana patients with a limited affirmative defense in court, but no protection from arrest. Patients can still be given a $100 fine that results in a criminal conviction.

Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), argues this is highly inadequate. “This means that, in addition to an unjust fine and misdemeanor conviction, patients have no legal way to obtain doctor-recommended medicine.”

Even if the new law passes, the possession and cultivation of marijuana, and sending or receiving it through the mail, would remain federal offenses, including in states that have legalized it.

Older adults support

Among the organizations that sent representatives to Annapolis to testify in support of the legislation is United Seniors of Maryland, an umbrella group representing many senior advocacy groups and older adult organizations throughout the state.

In a survey last year, the group’s members overwhelmingly supported legalization of the use of marijuana by medical patients. For Don Sillars, 81, United Seniors’ vice president of legislation, the bill “makes sense.”

Similarly, a new poll shows broad support for the bill. The poll was sponsored by MPP and conducted by Public Policy Polling, which surveyed 1,076 Maryland registered voters.

The survey informed voters of the bill pending in the legislature that would allow patients with multiple sclerosis, cancer, debilitating pain and other serious conditions to use marijuana with their doctors’ approval.

When asked if they supported the bill, 72 percent said yes, with just 21 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided. Details of the poll showed strong support for medical marijuana across all age, partisan and geographic lines.

Older voters were very supportive of the proposal: among 50- to 64-year-olds 77 percent approved; among those 65 and older 69 percent approved. Democrats were more likely to support the bill, but Republican support was still very strong at more than two to one. And voters favored the legislation throughout the state, with even 62 percent of those in conservative, western Maryland in support.

Morhaim said he was pleased but not surprised by the results of the poll. “There’s a strong consensus among medical and scientific professionals that marijuana can relieve the suffering of those with certain serious illnesses, and there’s nothing controversial about relieving suffering. That’s what this bill is about,” he said.

 “I’ve never had personal experience with the issue,” said Sillars, “but I have long believed that we have a way of dealing with marijuana in this country that makes no sense.”

While few senior and medical organizations are as vocally supportive as United Seniors of Maryland, most are not on record as opposed to the legislation.

Local Maryland hospitals will not comment on the issue, while organizations such as AARP, the American Medical Association, and MedChi (the Maryland State Medical Society), all report that they have no official position but support research looking into the use of medical marijuana.

Celebrity backing, too

Lending some star power to the legislative fight in support of the Maryland bill is popular former talk show host Montel Williams, who appeared at a January press conference with the sponsoring delegates in Annapolis.

“I grew up in Maryland, graduated from the Naval Academy, and my family still lives in Baltimore today,” Williams said at the press conference. (His  father was Baltimore’s first African-American fire chief.)

“So I’m excited about the prospect of helping my home state put in place a policy that’s more compassionate toward our most vulnerable residents,” he added.

Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago and has sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Following his diagnosis, he created the Montel Williams MS Foundation, which is committed to raising awareness of the disease and providing inspiration to those who live with MS.

Williams has served as an advocate for the compassionate use of medical marijuana in a variety of states that have approved new laws. To date, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

For Morhaim, the use of marijuana in medical treatment is “just another tool in the toolbox, to be used safely and responsibly like any other therapy.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for patients to have access to the medicines that work best for them, especially for those suffering from serious ailments like cancer and multiple sclerosis,” Morhaim said. “Marijuana may provide the greatest possible relief, one that can help when other therapies are not effective.”

Opposition in high places

But Maryland‘s health secretary, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, said recently he opposes the current version of the bill because his department lacks the resources to oversee the system to dispense it, and the medical use of the drug remains controversial.

However, he also told a panel of lawmakers the department would be willing to help them study the issue this year to look for a “more feasible option.’’

Opposition from Sharfstein is significant, because the proposed legislation makes the health department responsible for overseeing growers, licensing sellers and doing other administrative jobs. Sharfstein, the former No. 2 official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, became secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in January.

“The use of the marijuana plant itself for medical purposes is controversial,” Sharfstein said. “This is not just because marijuana is a controlled substance. It is also because marijuana, unlike approved pharmaceuticals, has not been characterized, studied and determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be safe and effective.’”

Morhaim said he’s ready to work with the department to address the secretary’s concerns, and he said he hoped to address some of the issues during the current legislative session, which ends April 11.

For patients like Deborah Miran, Montel Williams, Delegate Dan Morhaim, and Senators Jamie Raskin and David Brinkley, the time has come to pass the bill.

“I would much rather have paid a co-pay through my insurance company to have gotten the marijuana legally and known it was safe and free from impurities,” said Miran, who added that she had no problems with the marijuana she did obtain.

Miran counts herself fortunate that she was able to find the marijuana that proved key to helping her get back her strength. “It was a miracle for me.”

Now she hopes others will have that same opportunity.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.