Maryland's health secretary said Friday he supports a measure to create a commission to oversee a medical marijuana program in the state at academic research centers, with some changes to clarify that the state could shut it down if the legal landscape changes at the federal level.
The support expressed by Secretary Joshua Sharfstein marks a shift in Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, which supported the concept in principle last year but opposed the bill due to concerns about potential federal prosecution of state employees.
"I think this is a bill that provides some common ground,'' Sharfstein told lawmakers at a hearing.
Sharfstein noted that last year, it was unclear how the U.S. officials would react to enforcing federal law relating to marijuana use. On Friday, he said federal officials have not prosecuted state employees for dispensing medical marijuana.
The secretary said the O'Malley administration would support the bill with amendments, including one that would clarify the state could pay for a public employee's defense, if he or she were charged by federal officials.
"So to the extent that state employees are out doing this and they run into problems with the federal government, the state should be able to pay for their defense,'' Sharfstein said.
The dispensing of marijuana likely wouldn't take place for two years, after about a year of planning how the program would work, Sharfstein said.
The measure is being sponsored by Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County).
The bill would create a commission to oversee the program at academic medical centers. The measure would spell out who would be eligible to receive marijuana under specifically defined medical circumstances. It also would include monitoring provisions and fees, as well as data collection.
Morhaim underscored that the measure would not create marijuana parlors or stores or open-air dispensaries.
"It would be the tightest and most controlled of any state in an academic research setting,'' Morhaim said.
Maryland residents face a potential $100 fine if they are caught using marijuana with a medical excuse. But critics say that still drives people whose pain could be alleviated by marijuana into alleys to buy from drug dealers and break the law.