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Lawmakers hear pleas for medical marijuana use

February 27, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Erin Hildebrandt of Smithsburg said she suffered from a debilitating bowel disease and migraine headaches that left her unable to care for herself, let alone her children.

She discovered that smoking marijuana helped her cope.

"It saved my life. I am able to function," the soft-spoken 32-year-old woman told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday.

Hildebrandt said she was terrified to speak for fear of what might happen to her children, three boys and two girls all under age 7.

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"Are my little children going to lose their mother?" she asked.

Hildebrandt, who has Crohn's disease, joined cancer survivors and medical professionals in asking lawmakers to approve the use of medical marijuana.

"I'm begging you, please," she said.

Prospects for the legislation are good. It passed the House of Delegates last year but died by one vote in the same Senate committee where Wednesday's hearing was held.

Faces have changed with the election, but backer and former delegate Donald Murphy said he is optimistic.

Gone from the committee is Sen. Tim Ferguson, whose committee vote last year killed the bill. Ferguson was defeated by Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll/Frederick, one of the bill's chief supporters.

Brinkley went through radiation therapy for lymphoma in 1989. Although he didn't have to use marijuana, he said he would advocate anything to help people who are suffering.

About 10,000 Marylanders will die from cancer this year, he said.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich supports the idea of legalizing marijuana for medical use, but he has not taken a position on the bill under consideration, his spokesman Henry Fawell said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, would set up a mechanism whereby patients, with approval of their doctors, could obtain cards from the state Board of Physician Quality Assurance certifying that they are using marijuana for health reasons.

Under the bill, patients suffering from a debilitating medical condition such as cancer, HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or Crohn's disease could pay a registration fee of up to $150 to smoke pot and help ease the symptoms. Supporters believe compounds in marijuana smoke often relieve severe nausea suffered by some patients undergoing treatment for cancer - and having trouble keeping down pills.

The patient would be allowed to grow seven marijuana plants, three of which may be mature, and possess one usable ounce of marijuana per mature plant.

The bill is named after Darrell Putman, a former Army Green Beret from Howard County who turned to marijuana for medicinal purposes to treat his cancer before he died in 1999.

A law enforcement officer and a representative for Moose International testified against the bill.

John C. Horstman of the Moose said there is a danger patients would abuse the law to grow marijuana for their friends and for profit.

"To open the door and allow a foot inside is not the answer," he said.

An Elkton, Md., hospice doctor said he supports legalization for medical use because it has helped patients.

But he expressed concern that the method exposes doctors to the risk of losing their licenses.

Supporters said doctors would not lose their licenses since they would not be prescribing the drug, but only recommending.

Since 1970, marijuana has been a controlled dangerous substance under state and federal drug prohibitions. Simple possession or use of marijuana can bring penalties of up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine.

The Board of Physician Quality Assurance, which is a part of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is opposing the bill, in part because it may conflict with federal law.

Hollinger has 19 bipartisan co-sponsors on the bill, so it already has almost enough votes to pass the 47-member Senate. An identical measure has 56 co-sponsors in the House.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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