Health agency opposes medical marijuana bill
The chief of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene testified today against a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana, potentially dooming a plan that had been on track to pass the General Assembly this year.
The proposal, which cleared the Senate last year and attracted more than 60 House co-sponsors this year (71 votes are needed for passage), would have enabled doctors to prescribe marijuana for patients with chronic pain or diseases and established a tightly controlled network of state-registered growers and dispensaries.
Instead, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who took over the Health Department in January, proposed a more measured first step. If a committee of lawmakers, health officials, law enforcement and interested parties agree, Maryland would mimic a research program recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
That would mean far more limited access to medical marijuana than under the General Assembly's legislation.
Del. Dan Morhaim, the House sponsor of the medical marijuana bill and the legislature's only medical doctor, agreed to Sharfstein's idea. The discussion came as two House committees heard testimony from many cancer patients, doctors and medical marijuana advocates who support Morhaim's bill.
Last year, under then-Secretary John Colmers, the department took no position on Morhaim's bill, the agency spokesman said.
But Sharfstein, a former top official with the Food and Drug Administration, testified today that Morhaim's bill may have unintended consequences -- either proving costly for the state to implement, enabling too many patients access to marijuana or both.
Sharfstein said that while many medical organizations support additional research of medical marijuana, "they have not supported state efforts to legalize" it.
Fifteen states, most recently Arizona, and the District of Columbia allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana.
Some lawmakers at the hearing also expressed concerns that until the federal government reclassifies marijuana, states are breaking the law by implementing any medical marijuana program. And before Sharfstein testified, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, wondered whether Morhaim's bill would permit someone with back pain or other less-severe conditions to use marijuana. Morhaim stressed that a doctor would need to make that determination.
Responding to Sharfstein's testimony, Morhaim said he would work with the Health Department to either amend his bill to conform to the Institute of Medicine recommendations or continue studying the issue.