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Attitudes ease toward medical marijuana

Fri May 23, 7:09 AM ET

Richard Willing USA TODAY

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich signed a law Thursday that will greatly reduce penalties for disease sufferers who use marijuana to relieve pain.

The new law sets a maximum fine of $100 for ''medical marijuana'' users who have less than an ounce of the leaf. It makes Maryland the 10th state since 1996 to ease or eliminate sanctions for medical use of the herb, which gained wide use during the 1960s because of its euphoric effects.

Maryland's move is a setback for the Bush administration, which had called on Ehrlich, a fellow Republican, to reject the measure.

The White House has made marijuana a particular target of its anti-drug efforts, arguing that users often move on to more dangerous drugs. It has campaigned against medical marijuana proposals in several states, prosecuted distributors and growers of medical pot in California, and urged Canadian officials to reject a plan to eliminate criminal penalties for most marijuana users in that country.

Despite those efforts, lawmakers in states across the nation have shown a willingness to separate marijuana from other banned drugs. That's largely because of claims by scientists and patients that the drug's most active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can ease pain and nausea and improve the appetites of those suffering from AIDS (news - web sites), cancer, glaucoma and other ailments.

Since last fall, 13 state legislatures have considered medical marijuana bills. The only proposal to have become law is Maryland's, which allows those whose doctors prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes to avoid facing the $1,000 fine and one year in jail that recreational users would face.

''The Bush administration has come into this fight with guns blazing, but the trend line is clearly running against them,'' says Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a group in Washington, D.C., that wants pot to be legal. ''This is being driven by continuing evidence of (marijuana's) medicinal value and by testimony of actual patients.''

Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Policy, calls Maryland's medical marijuana law ''unfortunate.''

Some think ''that (marijuana) is a powerful medicine denied to those who are suffering,'' he says. ''But NORML and other well-organized, well-funded groups backing these laws aren't medical groups. They've got an agenda to legalize all marijuana.''

Marijuana, which is usually smoked but can be taken in pill form, produces a sense of dreaminess and mild elation. Kitty Tucker, a Takoma Park, Md., attorney disabled by migraine headaches and a neuromuscular disorder, says smoking small amounts of pot lessens her pain and improves muscle control.

Migraines, she says, used to ''feel like an axe chopping at the base of my skull.'' Marijuana does not relieve all the pain, but ''it keeps me from wanting to jump off a bridge.''

The bipartisan group that pushed Maryland's plan was influenced by such stories.

A sponsor in the state Senate, Republican David Brinkley, says he was moved by accounts of cancer patients who said pot, unlike prescribed painkillers, allowed them to stay alert while being treated for pain.

Ehrlich had a brother-in-law whose unsuccessful battle with cancer would have been made easier by marijuana, an aide to the governor says.

Riley says advocates for medical marijuana laws understate the drug's dangers.

''Most people's impression was formed in the 1960s and the 1970s . . . that the worst thing it causes is the munchies,'' Riley says. ''Public health information in the past 10 years has made clear its addictive properties, and what a large percentage of other drug problems it is implicated in.''