SALISBURY -- A woman stands by her drug dealer when she stumbles to
his door to buy marijuana.

She suffers from multiple sclerosis and is in excruciating pain. The
dealer sells her the drug for the pain. Their bond, though knotted by
years of supply and demand, is built on trust.

Ironically, a new law intended to protect people who use marijuana as
medicine makes the woman uneasy.

The law, signed last month by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, imposes a maximum
$100 fine for medical marijuana users. The Darrell Putman law relaxes
the current state penalty for marijuana possession -- up to a year in
prison and a $1,000 fine.

But the woman is cynical of a government offer that could bait her
into the open and trap her dealer.

"I worry about him," she said, unwilling to share her identity. "What
about those people who start smoking out in the open? Suppose you're
caught. What are you going to do, go tell where you got it?"

Dr. Dan Morhaim, a delegate from Baltimore County, introduced the bill
in the Maryland House of Delegates. Political supporters argue that
the bill is a "compassionate use act" that lessens penalties and
provides seriously ill patients relief.

"I'm not buying it," said the woman. "I'm not talking to the law or a
doctor."

A Law of Compassion

Supporters point to evidence that marijuana eases pain from chronic
conditions such as multiple sclerosis. For years, countless
testimonies of the herb's ability to reduce nausea from chemotherapy
have been offered by medical experts and users.

Sen. Richard Colburn, R-37-Dorchester, said his own "brush with death"
influenced his support of the bill.

"I am a cancer survivor, and certainly have been down that road," said
Colburn, who underwent a procedure for prostate cancer in May 2000.

Colburn's treatment didn't include chemotherapy. He didn't smoke
marijuana, though severe pain led doctors to prescribe morphine, he
said.

"Doctors can prescribe much more dangerous drugs than marijuana," he
said. "I was given morphine. You squeeze the trigger when you feel the
need."

The woman using marijuana was diagnosed with MS nearly 15 years
ago.

"I realized something was wrong when I had double vision," she
recalled.

Achy joints and partial blindness soon followed -- then facial pain
and bouts of irritability and memory loss.

"I was on steroids, all kinds of medicine," she said.

She's had success with a new drug called Avonex, which she injects
weekly to ward off seizures.

Marijuana dulls the pain.

"The pain is always there. I live with it," she said. "I smoke
(marijuana) every chance I get. It makes the aching level off."

Some critics argue that relaxed marijuana laws can lead to increased
drug abuse. But Colburn, who describes himself as conservative, disagrees.

"It is an issue about compassion and the bill clearly makes the
distinction between drug users and people's medical purposes," he said.

The bill mirrors laws in nine states that relaxed penalties for
medical marijuana users, Colburn said. More than 20 states have taken
lesser measures, he said.

"It is not the intention that anybody can illegally be taking drugs,"
he said. "Doctors and families should decide how to treat a patient.
Who am I to say (if patients should smoke) in the last days of their
lives?"

Still an Illegal Drug

Colburn said he is proud of his viewpoint.

"I am a conservative Republican and I have a human side, too," he
said. "It does defy the stereotype. It shows that we Republicans who
are very conservative have a compassionate side, a human side like
everyone else."

But R. Hunter Nelms, sheriff for Wicomico County, said the law raises
enforcement issues.

"If the governor in his wisdom signed this for the people as another
medical resource, I hope means are found whereby a person can obtain
(marijuana) in a legal fashion and be allowed to use it," he said.

Enforcement guidelines likely will be handed down from the Attorney
General's office, Nelms said.

"I've not seen any information on it and I don't know the
particulars," he said. "It's my guess we'll consult with the state's
attorney and seek guidance on how to handle the situation."

An appeals court judge could set the precedent for procedures after a
specific case is presented.

"Usually, with a law this unique, an appeals court will set procedures
on how this will be done and it could take months, even years to
settle out," he said.

A Drug of Choice

Marijuana accounts for most drug arrests in Wicomico County, Nelms
said. To date, no suspects have claimed a medical excuse, he said.

"More people possess marijuana, then crack," he said. "Generally it is
a couple of joints for personal use, and generally, we'll charge them."

Drug offenders account for the majority of inmates in the state prison
system, but an exact number of marijuana offenders is unclear, said
Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety
and Corrections.

Of 24,000 prisoners statewide, 24 percent are serving time on drug
charges, Vernarelli said. At the Eastern Correctional Institution in
Westover, 20 percent of the 3,000-inmate population are drug
offenders, he said.

By comparison, murder convictions make up 15 percent of the state's
prison population, robbery accounts for 16 percent and 17 percent of
prisoners are being held on assault charges, Vernarelli said.

"Drugs are always the No. 1 offense," he said.

Joe Hopwood, a retired Salisbury farmer, said he hopes the law leads
to a new market for regional farmers. Hopwood unsuccessfully lobbied
the General Assembly in 1997 for the use of marijuana in animal feed
and pulp products, he said.

"Stalks and leaves make excellent paper, and cooking oil and chicken
and hog feed can be made from seeds," he said.

Unlike decades ago, much of the marijuana smoked today in the United
States is grown domestically, Hopwood said.

"Farmers and poultry growers could benefit," he said. "We're wasting a
good possibility."


Pubdate: Sun, 15 Jun 2003
Source: Daily Times, The (MD)
Copyright: 2003 The Daily Times
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