The debate was thinly sandwiched between tales of miraculous cures and emotional charges. Once again, the federal government was accused of lying and the proponents of foisting a "major fraud" on cancer patients.

The fight to legalize laetrile in Maryland returned to the General Assembly yesterday as proponents of the controversial cancer-treatment drug argued for the second straight year that physicians should be given the right to prescribe it to willing cancer patients.

The laetrile issue was one of the most emotional of last year's legistlative session. The Senate approved legislation giving physicians the qualified right to prescribe the drug, but the bill died under the weight of House amendments.

The first round of this year's battle came yesterday at a hearing of the House Environmental Matters Committee in which members again heard the calls of "freedom of choice" for cancer patients, including those who have exhausted conventional therapy.

"I refuse to get my breasts cut off," declared Carolyn Hedden, a 34-year-old Baltimore suburbanite, who claimed laetrile helped stop her breast cancer. "I found something that works for me and I can get it from my doctor. But I don't want to sneak around."

Federal regulators and members of the medical establishment oppose the use of laetrile on two grounds: (1) that there is no evidence it is safe and effective, and (2) that prescribing the drug can disract a patient from more effective forms of treatment.

Maryland still has the opportunity to ensure that its citizens will have the best health care, and not be exposed to a major fraud that victimizes those who can least resist it, the sick and their families," testified Donald Kennedy, commissioner of food and drugs for the Federal Drug Administration.

When Kennedy was questioned about the principle of "freedom of choice," he replied, "I don't think uninformed choice is free choice" and said that the claims of laetrile's powers are scientifically untested.

Kennedy and the FDA proved to be the whipping boys of laetrile proponents, who accused them of lying to the American people about the risks of the drug and "criminally" ignoring a recent court order allowing limited distribution of laetrile.

Under a December ruling of the U.S. District Court in western Oklahoma, laetrile can be transported across state lines and distributed to terminally ill cancer patients who sign an affidavit saying they are aware of the risks in taking the drug.

Kennedy said the FDA is honoring the so-called "affidavit system" - it is the way Carolyn Hedden gets her laetrile - and approving the limited importation of the drug from Mexico. FDA is appealing the court decision at the same time.

The House bill reviewed in committee yesterday would give physicians permission to prescribe and administer laetrile for cancer patients who sign "informed request" indicating they are aware that the FDA and established medical societies disapprove of the drug.