Montel Williams urges state passage of medical marijuana
Supporters hope bipartisan support, personal stories will boost bill's odds
ANNAPOLIS Popular former talk show host Montel Williams returned to his home state Monday to make an emotional pitch for legalizing medical marijuana.
Surrounded by more than a dozen senators and delegates from both sides of the aisle, Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, broke down several times while discussing the disease's impact on him.
"Marijuana may not work for everyone, but what it has done for me is it has given me my life back," he said at an afternoon news conference.
The bill is similar to legislation proposed last year that passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Supporters said they made several tweaks, including banning the drug from being used in motor vehicles, to what they contend would be one of the most tightly-crafted medical marijuana laws in the nation.
"In the war on drugs, our hope is to get the sick and dying off the battlefield," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, a lead sponsor who is the legislature's only medical doctor.
Williams said he was particularly heartened that the proposal had support "from every corner of the legislature." Sens. David R. Brinkley and Jamie B. Raskin, who are lead sponsors in their chamber, discussed being able to relate to the bill's goals.
Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market is a two-time cancer survivor who never used the drug, but understands its benefits as a pain reliever for some patients. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park is currently undergoing treatment for colon cancer
"The public health and the public safety are the highest law that we come here to defend and government should never get in between people and the medical relief that they need," Raskin said.
Williams was officially diagnosed in 1999, but traces the disease back to an overdose of pre-commissioning inoculation, several weeks before graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. He fought back tears describing temporary blindness in one eye and chronic pain in his extremities that can now only be combated with a series of prescription drugs and marijuana.
"Unfortunately, opiates don't work for me anymore," he said. "I've used too many. So I'm left with one course of action."
Williams has become a national spokesman in the campaign to legalize medical marijuana. He said it would be particularly meaningful to help ensure its passage in Maryland, where his family still lives.
Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana use for medical reasons. Maryland law presently provides reduced fines and no jail time for patients who can prove a medicinal need, but there is no legal way to obtain the drug and they are still subject to a criminal conviction on their record.
As written, the bill would authorize physicians to prescribe marijuana to long-term patients, but only after attempting other treatments. The state health department would license and regulate all marijuana producers and dispensaries to ensure compliance with the law.
More than 26,000 Marylanders are reported with cancer each year, according to the Maryland Center for Cancer Surveillance and Control. From 2001 to 2005, Maryland had the 19th highest cancer death rate in the country.
Supporters hoped last year's effort would be a breakthrough. It was debated soon after U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said federal officials would not prosecute medical marijuana patients in states that have their own laws on the books. The American Medical Association also shifted its stance late in 2009 urging the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II controlled substance, which is less restrictive than the Schedule I group it had been in, alongside Ecstasy, heroin and PCP.
Earlier this month, Transportation Security Administration personnel at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wis., found a pipe in Williams' bag and cited him for possession of drug paraphernalia. Williams paid a small fine and continued on his flight, but said on Monday that his lawyer is scheduled to appear in court in several days to fight the charge.
"I'm right now the poster child and in a lot of places a lot of people are looking for somebody to make an example of to prove a point," he said. "All I'm trying to do is live."