Advocates Aim to Relax Maryland Law on Medical Marijuana

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Although far smaller in scale, a California-style approach of going easy on medical-use pot smokers has been wafting through the Montgomery County courthouse.

Within minutes of each other last week, two defendants left the courthouse with slaps on their wrists: a 56-year-old man with cyclic vomiting syndrome, and a 19-year-old woman with epilepsy.

Their cases show how Maryland's little-known medical marijuana law might be applied in the future and how some ill pot smokers are beginning to raise awareness of it.

"It's essential the state do more. Marijuana is critical for people with certain illnesses," said Steven Kupferberg, a defense lawyer in one of the cases.

Thirteen states allow the medical use of marijuana. California has led that effort, permitting storefront dispensaries to sell pot to residents with a doctor's recommendation.

Virginia is not one of the 13 states, and politicians appear to have little interest in changing that.

The District also forbids the practice, but advocates got a boost this summer when the U.S. House of Representatives lifted a restriction that curbs the city from changing its drug laws. The Senate has not taken that action, advocates said. The sponsor of the 1998 D.C. measure, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), praised the move, calling it "an important step in the direction of individual freedom."

Maryland forbids medical use, but under a 2003 law, defendants can be shown leniency if they show medical necessity. The law is rarely used -- not all lawyers know about it, and people convicted of simple marijuana possession can receive leniency, particularly for a first arrest.

Advocates for the medical use of pot in Maryland are pushing for a law that would keep sick people from resorting to buying it on the street. And more of those buyers have been willing to speak out for such a law.

Debate over the medical use of marijuana often turns on the drug's efficacy and whether it is the only remedy available. The latter issue was evident in the two Montgomery cases.

The case of William York started Feb. 8, 2008, when detectives intercepted a package of marijuana addressed to him. They delivered it to York at his home in Silver Spring, finding him dripping wet in his bathrobe after he had just gotten out of the tub. York was convicted of marijuana possession.

At his sentencing hearing Aug. 27, York's attorney submitted medical records and two doctors' notes to show that York couldn't control his cyclic vomiting syndrome with pills, in part because he threw them up. The condition is typified by episodes of severe nausea and vomiting that can persist for hours or days.

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