The bills, HB 1024 and HB 1148, are based on the recommendations of a study panel created by the Legislature in 2011 and were introduced in the state House by Del. Dan Morhaim. Senator Jamie Raskin is expected to sponsor similar legislation in the state Senate.
One version of the legislation, championed by state lawmakers on the work group, allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients who could then purchase it from licensed dispensaries, all of which would be overseen by an independent commission.
The second version, put forward by Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Joshua Sharfstein, tasks academic institutions with distribution of marijuana, which would be the first program of its kind in the U.S.
Both bills would protect licensed patients from arrest and prosecution. Currently, patients are only afforded an affirmative defense in court, but are still subject to arrest even if they've subsequently able to demonstrate medical necessity.
Del. Cheryl Glenn has already introduced HB 15, another medical marijuana bill that would allow patients to cultivate limited amounts of cannabis, in addition to establishing a dispensary system. But both work group models would restrict cultivation to state-registered growers.
"There are some differences in these two plans when it comes to how medical marijuana is cultivated and distributed, but the bottom line is that both support changes to the status quo," said Del. Morhaim, the only physician in the Maryland House. "Physicians, law enforcement officials, academics, and DMMH officials -- we all agree that something needs to be done.
"Remember that the charge of the work group from the Governor and the Legislature was to 'facilitate patient access to marijuana for medical purposes,' " Morhaim said. "It's now our job as legislators to look at these proposals and enact workable solutions that for many patients can dramatically improve their quality of life."
Senate sponsor Jamie Raskin echoed Morhaim's stance. "Last session the General Assembly decided that it is not a crime for very ill people in the State of Maryland to use marijuana for palliative purposes in accordance with medical advice," Raskin said. "What we left open was how such people can safely and legally access the drug.
"I'm determined that this session we come up with an effective mechanism for making medical marijuana available for the sick and suffering Marylanders who need it," Raskin said.
If any of the three bills pass, Maryland would become the 17th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow seriously ill people to treat their conditions with medical marijuana. There are 17 other states considering similar legislation this year.
A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed that 72 percent of Marylanders support allowing medical marijuana in their state.
For more information on state medical marijuana laws, visit the Marijuana Policy Project at wwwmpp.org..