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Marijuana Law Makes a Humane Distinction

 Article from The Sun

By Michael Olesker

THAT DAY IN Sinai Hospital's emergency room, the old man clutched Dr. Dan Morhaim's arm and tried to break through all of the years of drug laws, and misinformation and mystique, and his own cancer.

"Doc," he said, "have you ever had motion sickness?"

"Yes," said Morhaim, "I have."

He remembers the old man was weak and nauseated and ravaged by the combination of cancer andchemotherapy, and he was weighing his words cautiously.

"Ever had seasickness?" the old man asked.

"Yes," said Morhaim. He was listening, but there were other things he had to do, procedural things, and so the old man grabbed Morhaim's arm to get him to listen carefully because he was working himself up to say something that was pretty difficult.

"Have you ever had stomach flu, where you're throwing up?" the old man said.

"Yes."

"You're not a woman," he said, trying to get Morhaim to laugh, "so I know you don't know what morning sickness is like. But, when you were young, do you remember getting stomach cramps?"

"I do remember," Morhaim said.

"Well," the old man said now, "I feel like that all the time."

Morhaim looked down at his patient, sitting there so vulnerable, and thought, "I hate feeling that way even for a little while."

Then the old man, still holding on to Morhaim's arm, said, "I get these waves of nausea that are so bad, and a couple of puffs of marijuana takes it away. And I just want you to know that."

The conversation stayed with Morhaim. It stayed with him as a medical doctor, and it has stayed with him the past few winters in Annapolis, where he serves as a delegate from Baltimore County.

"He was trying to get something important across to me," Morhaim was saying last week, "but he didn't want to just say, 'Hey, Doc, I smoke marijuana.' Even in that state of sickness, with his dehydration and his nausea, he had to be careful how he said it. And that was real motivating for me."

It motivated Morhaim to introduce the House bill that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into law last week, lessening penalties for seriously ill patients who use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Maryland thus becomes the ninth state to offer some form of legal protection to medical marijuana users. Instead of the current state penalty -- up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine -- the new penalty is a maximum $100 fine for very sick patients arrested with marijuana.

The signing is notable, also, for this Republican governor sloughing off heat from White House officials arguing that he could be opening the door to greater drug abuse.

"I don't think that's what this is," Morhaim says. "I think it's like a man stopped for doing 50 miles per hour in a 30-mile zone, and he tells the police officer, 'My wife's in labor.' It's a common-sense, humanitarian bill. We're not talking about stopping a guy driving up from Florida with 25 pounds of pot in his car trunk. We're talking about a good citizen who's down to 90 pounds, and he's got a letter from his doctor that he's sick. You don't want to put such people in jail.

"And I hope that's the message that gets across to President Bush. There is a rational way to deal with drug laws, and put aside old phobias. The White House is totally wrong on this issue. The real drugs ravaging society are heroin and coke -- but tobacco and alcohol, too. And our society's made a determination that we can deal with tobacco and alcohol, but not marijuana. And that's a mistake."

Morhaim's memory goes beyond that old man in the Sinai Hospital emergency room. In more than 20 years of practice, he said, he's worked in emergency rooms in Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"And I've never seen a marijuana intoxication case in an emergency room," he said. "I've seen the ravages of heroin and cocaine, and tobacco and alcohol. But not marijuana, not in an emergency room. I'm not arguing that marijuana should be legalized. I'm not saying that at all. But I'm saying, lots of medicines come from plants and herbs. This is one. It'll help. It'll help with cancer patients, and AIDS and multiple sclerosis."

Some have argued that a marijuana-like prescription -- Marmol -- already exists in liquid gel capsule form, so why not use that instead of marijuana?

"Absolutely, try it first," Morhaim says. "But there may be problems: It takes 30 minutes to an hour to work. When you're hit by waves of nausea, and one or two puffs of marijuana can give you immediate relief, it's pretty clear what you want.

"This isn't about opening the door to marijuana abuse. This is a rational way to deal with drug laws, and to give sick people some relief."

And to recall an old man in the Sinai Hospital emergency room, struggling to tell how he found that relief without putting himself into prison.

Originally published May 25, 2003