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Maryland's Republican Governor Resists White House Pressure.

Diseased Strain

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In spite of strong pressure from the Bush White House, Maryland's Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich signed legislation to reduce the penalties for medical marijuana use. The Washington Post reported in a front-page story on May 23, 2003 ( "Ehrlich Signs Marijuana Bill") that "As he made some of the biggest policy decisions of his first year in office, Ehrlich crossed swords with politicians from liberals to Bush administration officials. On other issues, he won praise from the same groups, reinforcing his record as a lawmaker who is careful not to stray too far from the center. 'These are not easy issues, not easy bills,' Ehrlich said of the measures he has signed and vetoed over the past two days. Taken together, he said, his decisions reflect an administration committed to bipartisan governance and 'balanced with a unique dash of independence.' He was particularly firm in his support for the marijuana measure. It does not legalize the drug but provides that seriously ill people caught using marijuana for medical purposes cannot be jailed or be fined more than $100. The White House and some conservative supporters urged the governor to reject the bill, but Ehrlich cited his longtime support for the measure. 'If you look at my views over the years, there are clearly two wings of the party on social issues,' he said. 'One is more conservative, and one is more libertarian. I belong to the latter, and I always have.'"

The Washington Post further reported on the medical marijuana measure in a story in its Metro section, also on May 23, 2003 ( "Ehrlich Signs Marijuana Law"). According to it, "Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed legislation yesterday to dramatically reduce criminal penalties for cancer patients and others who smoke marijuana to relieve suffering, but the new law will not allow seriously ill people to obtain the drug legally. The measure, which takes effect Oct. 1, merely makes (medical necessity) a defense against charges of marijuana possession. Instead of facing a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, those who can convince a judge that they use marijuana to relieve symptoms of a chronic or life-threatening illness will have to pay a fine of no more than $100. Though the Maryland law falls short of measures in California and seven other states where marijuana use is legal for medical purposes, advocates said it sends an important message of support to sick people and their caregivers -- as well as to police and prosecutors, who might otherwise brand them criminals. 'It helps a little bit,' said Erin Hildebrandt, 32, a mother of five from Smithsburg who has used marijuana to relieve pain from Crohn's disease. 'At least I know I'm not going to be hauled off to prison if I'm caught.'"

The governor faced a good deal of opposition from outside Maryland on this issue. The Post reported that "Ehrlich's decision to sign the bill puts him at odds with conservatives in his party and with the Bush White House, which lobbied hard and applied 'a lot of pressure,' Ehrlich said, to persuade him to veto the bill. Tom Riley, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, confirmed that White House drug czar John P. Walters and his deputy telephoned Ehrlich to express the administration's opposition. Walters, who has launched a national campaign against efforts to relax state drug laws, has said that arguments for medicinal marijuana make no more sense than 'an argument for medicinal crack.'"

(Regarding the 'crack' comment, in a column on this story ( "Reefer Sanity Vs. Puritans In The White House") on May 28, 2003, the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page noted: "Funny he should say that. Marijuana is listed along with heroin and LSD as a 'Schedule I' drug, the category for drugs with 'no acceptable medical benefits' under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Cocaine is listed in Schedule II for drugs that have 'a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.' Categorizing marijuana as more dangerous than cocaine is one of many examples of how far our federal drug policy is removed from the real world.")

In another example of the disconnect between the real world and federal drug policy, the Post quotes a former federal narcotics official who lives in Maryland and opposed the move. "'This is a rotten and wrongheaded piece of work that will benefit the pro-marijuana lobby and the potheads of Maryland,' said Malcolm Lawrence of Chevy Chase, a former State Department official in charge of international narcotics control in the Nixon and Carter administrations. Lawrence said he voted for Ehrlich and contributed to his political campaign but now will 'vote for anyone but Robert Ehrlich' in 2006."

The Post also reports that other Maryland Republicans, including many lawmakers, support the Governor's position. "While some Republicans criticized Ehrlich, others stepped forward to praise his support for medical marijuana. The issue first came before the Maryland General Assembly four years ago, after Darrell Putman, a former Army Green Beret and Howard County Farm Bureau director, found that smoking marijuana helped relieve the pain of cancer, which killed him in 1999. Putman convinced then-Del. Donald E. Murphy ( R-Baltimore County ) to sponsor legislation that would have allowed seriously ill people to grow as many as seven marijuana plants for personal consumption. Murphy, who now chairs the Baltimore County GOP, and Putman's widow, Shay, were on hand yesterday to celebrate the bill's signing. They were joined by Sen. David R. Brinkley ( R-Frederick ), a cancer survivor who advocates decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes and won election last year against two Republican opponents in one of the most conservative districts in the state. 'I think Washington is out of step on this issue,' Brinkley said. 'Compassion needs to be overriding. These people are not criminals.'"
 

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