by Phillip Smith
A bill that would allow Maryland medical marijuana patients to mount an affirmative defense against pot possession charges passed the House of Delegates Saturday after being amended and approved by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday. The measure has already been approved by the state Senate, but now must go back to the Senate for a final vote as amended before heading for the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).
The bill, Senate Bill 308, builds on the 2003 Darrel Putnam Compassionate Use Act, which allowed for a medical necessity defense, but only to limit sentences. Under the 2003 law, qualified patients could still be found guilty and stuck with a misdemeanor conviction record, but could only be fined a maximum of $100.
SB 308 amends the 2003 law so that patients with "clear and convincing evidence" that they need to use marijuana for medical reasons are no longer found guilty and fined $100, but "if the court finds that the person used or possessed marijuana because of medical necessity, the court shall enter a finding of not guilty."
Unlike other medical marijuana states, patients are not protected from arrest and prosecution, but must instead defend themselves in court. Nor are there any provisions for them to grow their own medicine or buy it in dispensaries. But SB 308 does contain a provision that calls for a study group to ponder more comprehensive legislation for next year.
Sponsors of the measure had originally hoped to pass comprehensive medical marijuana legislation that would have established dispensaries throughout the state and protected patients from arrest, but that plan was derailed when the Secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene voiced concerns over cost of implementation. Now, the only costs will be $49,300 from the general fund to pay for one full-time employee to staff the study group.
"While we had hoped to see a full medical marijuana law on par with those in 15 other states, it’s encouraging that the legislature is moving toward the goal of protecting patients from arrest and providing legal access to doctor-recommended medicine," said Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, which was among those lobbying for a stronger bill. "I congratulate the sponsors and committee leaders for their ability to compromise swiftly and shepherd this bill to the House floor. This vote is a major victory and paves a clear path to the Governor’s desk."
Medical marijuana is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia, and is under consideration in a number of state legislatures this year.