Last year, when the Maryland State Senate took up a bill that would legalize medical use of marijuana, it had one sponsor with a powerful personal connection to the issue.
Sen. David Brinkley, the conservative Republican from Frederick who cosponsored the bill with Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), has survived two bouts with cancer and spoke passionately about the debilitating side effects he endured as a result of several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. In studies, marijuana has proven to be a particularly excellent antiemetic (anti-nausea) in patients coping with the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, like Brinkley. The bill passed the Senate 35-12, but stalled in the House of Delegates.
When the bill comes up again this year, it will have two sponsors with powerful personal connections to the issue.
“Right after the legislative session was over, I found out I had colon cancer,” says Raskin, 48, the bill’s cosponsor, who, over the summer, had a tumor removed and went through several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. He still has another course of chemo to complete, but doctors say his prognosis is excellent.
“Now, I feel all the more passionately about this issue,” says Raskin. “Both of us are completely devoted and passionate about it, and we have every reason to believe that it’ll pass the Senate with even a bigger margin.”
In the legislative session that begins this month, there is a good chance that both houses of the state legislature will pass a medical marijuana bill that is among the most comprehensive and detailed in the country, possibly providing a sensible blueprint for other states wary of the perceived free-for-all in states like California.
The law, largely crafted by Del. Daniel Morhaim (D-Baltimore), an emergency room physician, delineates strict procedures for distribution and control of marijuana, based on the system for powerful prescription drugs like morphine. Unlike laws in other states, the Maryland bill only permits distribution through pharmacies, not dispensaries, and allows it to be prescribed only for certain, very serious conditions.
“In California, Colorado, and some of those areas, [medical marijuana] is kind of a sham,” says Brinkley.
Raskin notes that in California, marijuana can be prescribed for ailments like “mild anxiety.” “We want to focus on the people who are dealing with leukemia and lung cancer and chemotherapy and have found no other relief,” he says.
Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project who spent time in the state last year rallying support for the bill, says the Maryland bill is among the most restrictive in the country. “It calls for statewide regulation from the Department of Health, which California doesn’t,” he says. “Also, it doesn’t allow for home cultivation.”
Largely as a result of the tight regulations and controls it includes, the medical marijuana bill, SB 627, passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support in April 2010. The bill had similar support in the House of Delegates, but stalled in the Judiciary Committee, where chairman Joe Vallario, a longtime opponent of medical marijuana, refused to bring it to a vote. “The manufacturing and production are something that we’re going to really have to look at,” he said at the end of the legislative session, suggesting that he would need to see more studies on the subject before allowing the bill to go to a vote. (Vallario did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)
“The house vote would have been a landslide,” says Riffle, whose organization sponsored a poll of primary voters in Vallario’s district, showing that 62 percent supported the bill, and only 22 percent opposed it.
“The vast majority of House Delegates approve of this and would’ve liked for it to come to a vote,” he says. “Vallario is the only one who didn’t approve, and, unfortunately, he’s in a relatively powerful position.”
Brinkley and Raskin plan to reprise the bill during the forthcoming legislative session and are cautiously optimistic about its chances of passing both houses.
“Since the election, there’s a lot of new people, so there’s certainly an education curve there,” says Brinkley. “I’m optimistic that the Senate would probably take it in the same direction—I don’t see why not, especially as tight as we’ve made it—but the big hurdle remains in the House.”
Raskin says “our prospects are excellent,” adding that the influx of new members could help push Vallario to act.
“The principle that people should have access to the medical care that they need is a very popular one—the only questions people have about this are the devil in the details,” says Raskin. “We really rolled up our sleeves and got to work and spent hundreds of hours developing this proposal. It’s a seaworthy legislative vehicle.”
In 1989, at the age of 29, David Brinkley was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer originating in the body’s white blood cells. As part of his treatment at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Brinkley endured eight weeks of radiation, alternating between the abdomen and the chest and jaw.
“You get radiation in the abdomen, I mean, talk about something that just makes you sick as a dog,” he recalls.
During the treatment, Brinkley was constantly nauseous and his throat was so sore that he couldn’t swallow. To feed him, doctors injected Lidocaine into his throat to numb it long enough for him to suck down a nutrient-supplement milkshake. “I had to walk around with a cup to spit in,” he recalls. “It was disgusting, but that’s what I had to do.”
Brinkley’s Lymphoma never recurred, although he suffered a series of subsequent health problems as a result of the treatment. Five years later, a melanoma was discovered on his back. It was removed and did not require radiation or chemotherapy.
Brinkley never used marijuana, but the suffering he endured left him with a new appreciation for those who suffer as he did, and whose doctors say marijuana can drastically reduce those symptoms.
“When you’re made to be pretty damn sick, your world gets altered,” he says. “I’m pretty focused on the plight of someone that’s battling cancer, and the family that has to go through it with them.”
By 2000, Brinkley had been elected as a Republican member of the House of Delegates, when fellow Republican Don Murphy of Baltimore County proposed the state’s first medical marijuana law. Murphy, whose father died of cancer, became a national advocate for medical marijuana.
“I called Don Murphy,” Brinkley recalls. “He said, ‘What, are you calling to bust my chops, too?’—I’ll never forget it. I said, ‘No, I’m calling to be the number-two sponsor,’ and I explained my history of cancer.”
The bill stalled in the legislature for three years, largely as a result of Joe Vallario’s staunch opposition, but in 2003, when Republicans on his Judiciary Committee started voting for the bill, Vallario relented.
“Conservative Republicans—Joe Getty, Carmen Amedori, by all means, one of the most conservative individuals—[Vallario] thought were going to vote ‘No’ started voting ‘Yes,’” says Brinkley. “He stopped the voting and said, ‘Come into my office, let’s hash this thing out.’”
The result was the 2003 Darrell Putman Compassionate Use Act, which was named after Army Lt. Col. Darrell Putman, a Vietnam veteran and cancer victim who became a vocal proponent of medical marijuana before he died in 1999.
The bill, which Gov. Robert Ehrlich signed in 2003, said that if someone who had been arrested for marijuana possession could prove that they were using it for medical reasons, the crime would be downgraded and they would be subject to only a $100 penalty. But for many, the law was woefully inadequate.
“In the first place, we should not be sending very sick people off to find drug dealers to get what, for them, is palliative care,” says Raskin. “Secondly, why are we subjecting these people to criminal prosecution and legal process when they need to be taking care of themselves? Then, why are we fining people even $100? We’re talking about people who are very sick and often unemployed or away from work. Why are we piling a financial penalty on it when we’ve determined that it’s a valid excuse for using the drug?”
Raskin, who helped corral support for the medical marijuana bill among Senate Democrats last spring, was floored when, just months later, he was told he had cancer.
“The whole time in the legislature, I was making these arguments about people with various diseases and chronic conditions—and I’ve had perfect health up until now,” he says. “And suddenly, I find out I’ve got cancer.”
And, although a family history of asthma and cystic fibrosis prevented Raskin from considering using medical marijuana, his experience with radiation and chemotherapy gave him a new understanding of the need. “The question is whether some people could derive some benefit from it,” he says. “And they absolutely could.”
Raskin anticipates that it will take some time to educate new legislators about the bill and see it through legislative hearings and committee meetings. “I don’t imagine that it hits the floor in either chamber in January or February,” he says. “I would hope and suspect that in early March it will show up.”
The fact that the bill is even close to passing shows how far the issue has come, adds Raskin. “What’s startling to me is that when I first agreed to do it, there were politicians saying to me, ‘You don’t want to go near that, that’s politically toxic stuff,’” he says. “But I have gotten almost uniformly positive e-mail and correspondence on this.”
Riffle adds that Maryland’s path toward legalization of medical marijuana follows a national trend that sees politicians lagging behind their constituents.
“There are a lot of politicians out there who, just because of the stigma associated with marijuana, are afraid to touch it,” he says. “The voting public is ahead of the politicians on this one. The overwhelming majority of them support medical marijuana. No one really thinks that truly sick people whose doctors prescribe them marijuana should be arrested for that.”