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States Agreed to Heed the Need for Weed

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Peter John Antonovich didn't care for marijuana until he was sent to Vietnam as a soldier, and found that he didn't have time for the stuff once he got back home and went to work for the telephone company.

That was before he started undergoing kidney dialysis a dozen years ago.

"I got so sick that I had to retire," the 60-year-old Valley Lee resident said as he sat outside his home. "I lost 85 pounds. I just don't have any appetite."

Since then, Antonovich has smoked marijuana, when he can find it and when he can afford it, to curb his nausea enough to make him hungry. After a police raid in 2009 on Antonovich's marijuana plant patch and a moonshine still at his home, he pleaded guilty early last year to the possession of marijuana and was fined $100.

Under Maryland law at that time, that was the maximum penalty for the offense if a violator could show they were using marijuana because of a medical condition, and Antonovich's lawyer and St. Mary's top prosecutor concurred that the wartime veteran was simply trying to endure the effects of his ongoing medical condition.

Last month, Maryland's legislators went a step further, passing a bill that spares defendants who have a documented severe illness and less than an ounce of the drug at home from being convicted of the misdemeanor offense altogether. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed the bill into law this week, and it will go into effect on June 1.

The chairman of the House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee, a legislator representing a portion of Calvert County, said in a recent interview that the bill's stringent allowances will only apply to people who can produce sufficient evidence in court of their need for the weed.

A veteran trial lawyer in Charles County said the new law indeed would have a limited effect on most criminal court dockets, as most people arrested for possessing marijuana are usually in a setting and circumstance not protected by the new provision. The new legislation leaves the $100 fine cap in place for the simpler proffer in court of a medical marijuana use, and the lawyer said judges generally will give a defendant in those cases probation before judgment, which also spares them from a criminal conviction on their record.

The Maryland Department of Legislative Services issued a final wrap-up report after the General Assembly session noting that the new bill also calls for creating a "medical marijuana model program workgroup ... for facilitating patient access to marijuana for medical purposes," and the group must report its findings to state lawmakers by December.

St. Mary's State's Attorney Richard Fritz (R) recently said at his office in the county's courthouse that the existing partial defense would clearly be warranted in cases such as one where "it's clear that the guy was wracked with cancer," and that it's not the job of prosecutors and police to decide if marijuana has legitimate medicinal value.

"That's up to the experts, not the state's attorney," Fritz said, but he expressed concern about how marijuana might be dispensed if it is legal for medical use.

"We have doctors who give out oxycodone like it's candy," the prosecutor said. "Are we going to give out marijuana like it's candy?"

Fritz said a computerized system, like ones already in use in some other states, would help keep track of who got drugs and where they got them, allowing pharmacies to detect people submitting multiple prescriptions.

"They can plug in my name, and it will show every prescription that I've had filled, ... and the doctor who wrote it," Fritz said. "I can understand the concept of medical marijuana. It's the possible abuses that come along with it. Is the legislature giving us any way to track these things? The answer to that is absolutely, 'No,' ... at this point in time."

O'Malley's office reported this week that he also signed into law a bill that will create a prescription drug monitoring program to electronically link the medical and pharmaceutical communities and help police crack down on prescription drug crime.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George's), the house judiciary chair who also works as a trial lawyer, said that the medical marijuana defense recognizes the drug's benefit to some people in lessening the side effects of chemotherapy.

"It will assist you in maintaining your appetite, the nutrition that you need to survive," the legislator said. "It's to be administered in your home only, ... not out in public."

If a marijuana user is arrested and seeks to use that defense, Vallario said, "They really need the doctor to come forward and testify, [or] medical records could be subpoenaed."

The new bill passed this spring also includes provisions that protect a doctor from being punished for discussing the "redeeming values" of smoking marijuana with their patients who might benefit from the drug, the legislator said, although the doctor can't provide it.

"He certainly cannot prescribe it," Vallario said.

The 10-year-old existing medical marijuana defense that caps the fine at $100 will remain in effect, with a lower in-court burden for the defense, the legislator said, and the new bill doesn't conflict with federal laws against possessing so much marijuana that it indicates an intent to distribute the drug. Vallario said he received assurances from federal prosecutors in Maryland that they weren't seeking out people in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"That's one of the reasons we limited it to 1 ounce, simple possession," he said. "We can't pass anything that's going to be opposed to federal law."

Federal prosecutors also will provide input for the study group, according to Vallario, who expressed his certainty that Maryland will not wind up having marijuana shops like in California and some other states.

Patients will still have to buy marijuana from people who deal it.

"They will be able to get it under the same way [as before]. However, they get it will be up to that person," he said, adding that legislators "did not want people to wind up with a $100 fine and a criminal record. We can't go any further than that."

James F. Farmer said from his law office in Waldorf that the new bill would not impact the handling of most drug cases.

"I don't think it's that significant. There's not that many cases of people that will have doctor's excuses," Farmer said. "Most people who have those defenses are not kids running around smoking marijuana in vehicles."

The defense lawyer said prosecutors generally would resolve on their own a case where a motorist stopped for speeding was found to have marijuana in the ash tray, and was also suffering from cancer or some other illness that prompted them to use the drug.

"I don't think many state's attorneys would go forward with that case," Farmer said.

In addition, the lawyer said, most judges would give a violator in that situation probation before judgment "in almost every single case," leaving them with no criminal record for the offense.

Farmer said of the bill, "It sounds good in theory, but in practicality it's of almost no use."

In the yard of his Valley Lee home, Antonovich said he hadn't smoked marijuana, or eaten much, for four or five days.

"I really haven't smoked it regularly because it's just not there, and I can't afford it. I live on Social Security," he said. "When I smoke, I can start to eat. I get hungry. I [otherwise] have to starve myself in order to eat. Yesterday, I had a handful of pretzels and [finished off] a pound of asparagus."

Antonovich added that "you could probably pay off the national debt if you legalized" marijuana, but he'd rather be allowed to grow his own. "Mine is organic," he said. "I don't know what the government would put in it."

But Antonovich mostly wants to be free to do what he can to deal with his pain.

He asked, "Where does anybody have a right to make me suffer the rest of my life?"

News Hawk- Jacob Ebel 420 MAGAZINE
Source: somdnews.com
Author: John Wharton
Contact: Contact Us
Copyright: Southern Maryland Newspapers
Website: States agreed to heed the need for weed
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