Friday, February 26, 2010

The Hearing

The last week has been a blizzard of activity, culminating in today’s hearing in front of two committees comprising more than a quarter of the entire Maryland House of Delegates. There were more than two dozen witnesses, and many more written testimonies.

It was a huge gathering of energy, marshaled by Dr. Dan Morhaim, Delegate from Baltimore’s 11th district. And the forces behind Medical Marijuana were so rampant, so overwhelming, that the only harms our side suffered were self-inflicted. But let us not dwell on small things – today went very well for us.

Dr. Morhaim introduced his legislation to the world, and to us, about a month after we sent the legislature our first batch of 600 postcards in support of medical marijuana. The bill, described by Dr. Morhaim as the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country, was not to our liking for a few reasons, but its absolute prohibition of patient cultivation was simply unacceptable. We did, for a time, consider shelving this objection, but the MMJ patients and activists in Maryland were almost monolithic in their support for the right to grow, and thus we determined to offer only conditional support for Dr. Morhaim’s bill.

When the bill was introduced, with 47 cosponsors in the House, and 10 in the Senate, it is reasonable to assume that part of the reason for the huge number of cosponsors were the 2166 of our postcards (at least one from every single district in the state) which had, by then, been received by the Delegates.

We never met with Delegate Morhaim until yesterday, although our friends at MPP did inform him, and the lead sponsors in the Senate (Sen. Brinkley & Sen. Raskin) that the right to grow was a deal breaker for us. So it cannot have been a surprise to Del. Morhaim that we chose to announce our provisional support, conditional on such an amendment, when we contacted the entire Delegation on Wednesday morning.

Very shortly after receiving this letter, Del. Glenn invited us to a meeting with Del. Morhaim in her office.

Damien called Neill Franklin of LEAP and asked him to come with us. Something about Major Franklin, (Ret). adds a certain gravitas to the crew. Maybe his thirty three years as a police officer in Maryland. Whatever, we introduced ourselves to Dr. Morhaim – he already knew Neill.

The meeting was efficient. Dr. Morhaim told us how he was going to deal with our objection. It was in no way a negotiation – Damien and I barely spoke – and Dr. Morhaim asked us no questions, nor did he even solicit a response – he was perfectly clear - this is what you can have – take it or leave it.

He also said, that removing the prohibition on the right to grow might cost us the bill this year, and if we don’t get a favorable report out of the Judiciary committee, then we will be back in the same position next year. That Judiciary chair Vallario will strangle the bill in committee is a cast-iron certainty, so all we really discovered was that when Morhaim re-introduces the bill next session, the right to grow will be excluded again.

Without the right to grow there is no legal supply of marijuana. Our other objections to this legislation can be dealt with in subsequent years - if we don't start with the right to grow we might never get medical marijuana at all. Such things as protection from arrest, or the inclusion of particular medical conditions can be dealt with in subsequent years, if necessary.

For the rest of the day we made phone calls, collected testimony, and generally prepared for our trip to Annapolis.

We had to deliver 70 copies of the written testimonies by noon. Some of them needed a bit of tidying up when they arrived, but we were in Annapolis at 11:30AM with seven times seventy testimonials, ASA also had a bunch, and there were umpteen witnesses who registered to speak. As the hearing came together in the huge committee room in the Legislative Services building, we were feeling nervously confident.

The TV people interviewed Barry Considine just inside the committee room, and I think there were at least two TV teams, as well as someone from the Gazette newspaper. Lots of the seats were full when Chairman Vallerio asked the bill sponsors -- Delegates Glenn and Morhaim, and Senator Brinkley -- to take their seats at the witness table.

For three hours witness after witness, generally in groups of four, took their allotted three minutes to share their expertise, their suffering, their pleas to the Delegates to please pass this legislation, (frequently saying also with an amendment to allow patients to cultivate). Only two witnesses raised an objection to the bill itself. And both of these based their objection on controversial research suggesting cannabis as a causative agent in schizophrenia. The only cops who spoke, spoke in support.

There were a few Delegates who identified themselves as opponents by their questions – two were openly hostile - they will be getting a few more postcards I expect. Also, I think we might send a newsletter to the rest of the Delegation with respect to the questions that perhaps remain open – and I might look into that schizophrenia thing a bit more. If is true, then Doctors should be made aware of the need to check for a family history of psychosis before recommending cannabis to patients, and if it is junk, then we should point to the research that proves its junk.

In what was one of the most dramatic moments, one of the speakers from LEAP made public a bit of police practice from his past experience. Matthew Fogg explained that his strong objection to the clause excluding felons from jobs in, or ownership of, medical marijuana dispensaries, was due to the fact that narcotics police routinely, and intentionally, made more busts in poorer parts of town, because it was harder for the victims to lawyer up and beat the rap. And because poorer areas are very frequently places with a high concentration of minority groups, this policy was racist then, and to perpetuate it with this exclusion, is racist now. I found this argument persuasive. Delegates who may have benefited more from this revelation seemed otherwise occupied when the point was raised. Perhaps this matter could be further explored in a newsletter to the Delegates.

The committee members will now retire to consider their votes, and to make such amendments to the bill as seem appropriate.

We are aiming to be the victors in the last battle, what has happened so far is just foreplay.

And we keep getting stronger.