Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Friday suggested he would support a bill to legalize medical marijuana, crossing a bright line the law-and-order governor had previously set against legalizing pot use for any reason.
O’Malley was nonchalant about the change in an impromptu meeting with reporters outside the State House on Friday. The governor said he is deferring to his chief health adviser on the decision.
“I’m focused on other things this year,” O’Malley said in an apparent nod to his package of gun-control legislation and a bill he is championing to repeal the state’s death penalty.
He won the state’s top elective office over six years ago on a reputation as a tough-on-crime Baltimore mayor. He has repeatedly opposed efforts to legalize marijuana, casting drugs as an ill on society and pot as illegal nationwide.
Under a mandate issued by the General Assembly in 2011, however, O’Malley’s administration was tasked with developing a model program for distributing marijuana for medical purposes.
Joshua Sharfstein, O’Malley’s secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, testified before lawmakers on Friday that the administration had completed a plan and that a bill sponsored by Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D), a Baltimore County doctor, contained most of the provisions the governor could support.
The bill’s prospects in the General Assembly remain unclear. But if passed, it would allow academic medical centers in the state to operate medical marijuana “compassionate use programs” beginning in 2016.
The centers — hospitals that operate medical residency programs, and that conduct approved research — would have to monitor marijuana usage, patient outcomes, publish results, and detail funding.
“There’s a red light approach that just says no; a green light that says, approve and go ahead,” Sharfstein said. “We support the [academic study] bill because it’s a yellow light approach” before any further legalization. “We need to assess . . . there are not proven benefits, but there are proven risks,” Sharfstein added.
He did not address another bill that has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and will come to the full Senate for consideration. The bill, authored by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), would make possession of marijuana a civil offense and not a criminal one. Under the measure, possession of less than 10 grams of pot would be punishable by a fine not exceeding $100.
Sharfstein said the administration’s academic study plan is based on guidelines from the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although it is tailored to academic research, it would nonetheless require Maryland to go down the complicated road of licensing marijuana growers and setting up a statewide Medical Marijuana Commission.
It also would grant legal immunity from drug laws to patients, health care providers and state personnel who administer the program.
Sharfstein said the administration opposed a similar bill last year on legal grounds because “there was a fear that state employees could be prosecuted for participating.”
He said the administration would want to amend Morhaim’s bill to allow for the suspension of the program if prosecution under federal drug laws became a greater concern.
In his testimony, Morhaim addressed the federal drug laws as the biggest obstacle to the bill, but said Washington is sending “mixed messages” by allowing states to proceed with medical marijuana programs. “Other states have stepped up,” Morhaim said, adding that their defiance sends a message.
At least one member of the House Judiciary Committee said he was skeptical about the medical benefits of marijuana. “I think it’s just a way to legalize all of it,” said Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Allegany).