Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh's effort to effectively ban medical marijuana facilities in his county through the zoning code is not only alarmist and prejudicial, it is also probably illegal.
That's the clear conclusion to draw from a letter of advice provided to members of the General Assembly from an assistant attorney general. State law explicitly says that medical marijuana growing, processing and distribution facilities must comply with local zoning. But "it does not permit the county to effectively bar these facilities, unless a particular county has special characteristics which make a particular type of facility inappropriate." We rather doubt that Mr. Schuh's desire to ensure that Anne Arundel isn't a "guinea pig" when it comes to medical marijuana would qualify as such a special characteristic. Rather, we are quite certain that in as large and diverse a county as Anne Arundel, there are plenty of locations that would be more than suitable for all types of medical marijuana facilities.
What seems to be going on here, and in other jurisdictions that have considered draconian limits on medical marijuana, is a paranoia akin to that which too frequently accompanies methadone clinics. Mr. Schuh complained that marijuana dispensaries would be a gateway to eventual sales of recreational marijuana and that in the meantime, state prescription limits would allow each patient to become "a little miniature dealer."
If prejudice against opioid addicts who are using methadone to stay clean doesn't make sense, it's positively batty to take such an ill view of people who have been prescribed medical marijuana to treat, as state law specifies, "a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition" that leads to hospice or palliative care or produces "cachexia, anorexia, or wasting syndrome; severe or chronic pain; severe nausea; seizures; or severe or persistent muscle spasms." Those who want to become a "little miniature dealer" probably have much easier ways to get into the business than establishing a bona fide patient-doctor relationship with a physician who would then be required to file copious paperwork with a state commission attesting to the patient's symptoms, the plan of care and assessment of the treatment's results.
(Moreover, as some advocates have pointed out, this would be a bad business plan, since medical marijuana is almost universally more expensive than the street variety.)
Anne Arundel doesn't lack for patients with cancer, AIDS or other diseases that produce symptoms for which some patients report marijuana to be helpful. To be sure, marijuana has consciousness-altering side effects, but so do many legal prescription medications. It can be abused, but so can drugs like oxycodone — with generally much more dire effects. The General Assembly decided two years ago to allow Marylanders to use marijuana to treat certain conditions under strict regulation. It did not include a provision for local governments to opt out.
Fortunately, support seems to be building in the County Council behind a competing bill that would restrict medical marijuana facilities through the zoning code but would not ban them outright. It's similar to an approach that was enacted in Baltimore County this summer, after a backlash against a more restrictive bill. Three council members are co-sponsoring the measure, and at least one other has expressed reservations about Mr. Schuh's bill.
We'll grant that the medical use of marijuana has not been studied with the same rigor as is typical for prescription drugs. That's the consequence of the federal government's insistence on classifying it as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it has no recognized medical use. Reclassifying it as a Schedule II drug, as former governor and presidential candidate Martin O'Malley recently proposed, would not only open the door for Food and Drug Administration regulation but also raise the possibility of its use in medical research.
But it is fairly clear that allowing medical use of the drug has not led to rampant and widespread abuse. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heath researchers reported this month that despite the recent liberalization of marijuana laws in many states — including medical marijuana programs, decriminalization and outright legalization — the percentage of teens who report having used marijuana is down significantly in the last 15 years. Horror stories from the early days of medical marijuana legalization in California abound, but that was nearly 20 years ago. Maryland's regulatory scheme benefits from the experiences of 22 other states and includes more stringent controls than many. We can't guarantee there won't be any abuses, but no medication is held to that standard. The General Assembly, after much debate, determined that the potential benefits outweighed the risks, and they meant that conclusion to apply to Anne Arundel residents, too.