ANNAPOLIS — After years of debate, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 108-28 on Monday for a measure that would put the state on a path toward developing a medical marijuana program in the next few years.
The measure, which now goes to the Senate, would create a state commission to oversee medical marijuana programs at academic medical research centers that decide to participate. It’s estimated one would not be up and running in the state until at least fiscal year 2016.
“It may take several years for a program to get up and running, and federal policy presents a substantial obstacle to a law like this one ever being fully implemented,” said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Still, this bill gives us hope that patients could have safe, reliable access through programs that bear the imprimatur of some of the country’s most respected medical institutions.”
Supporters have been backing the measure for years, but it received an extra boost this year with the support of the state’s health secretary.
Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Joshua Sharfstein, a member of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s cabinet, ex-pressed support for the measure, so long as the bill was changed to enable the governor to suspend the program, if it is determined state employees could be prosecuted by the federal government for their work in a program. The legislation also was changed to spell out that a state employee would be eligible for reimbursement of legal fees in connection with a federal criminal investigation for good-faith work related to the program.
The programs would provide patients with marijuana grown by the federal government or state-licensed growers regulated by the state commission, which would operate under the state health department.
Participating academic medical research centers would have to specify qualifying medical conditions for treatment. They would have to identify sources of funding and a plan for monitoring outcomes. The health de-partment would also have to make data on the programs available to law enforcement.
Last week, the state Senate voted 30-16 to decriminalize the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana.
California became the first state to allow the medical use of marijuana in 1996. Since then, 17 other states and the District of Columbia have followed.
Under current Maryland law, if a court finds that a defendant used marijuana out of medical necessity, the maximum punishment is a $100 fine. Critics say the law still forces people whose pain could be alleviated by marijuana to buy it illegally from drug dealers.