Opioid and Heroin Overdoses Have Reached ‘Crisis Level’ In Maryland

When Carin Miller’s son was about 19 years old, he began to abuse heroin by snorting pills, eventually moving on to shooting up. This went on for six years before he got help.

Lucas Miller’s history of drug use started in high school with smoking marijuana. When he moved out of his parents’ house, one of his housemates had access to between 750 to 1,500 pills at any given time between five houses located in Frederick, Maryland.

“My son was addicted to heroin, he’s in recovery by the grace of God since Thanksgiving 2014, I think that’s where we are at,” Miller said.

Opioid overdoses now rank with cancer, strokes and heart attacks among the top killers in Maryland.

State and federal lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at addressing the crisis, although they and public health experts agree the battle will be long.

On April 10, the Maryland General Assembly passed several bills to address this ongoing statewide crisis. The Start Talking Maryland Act, HB1082, and the HOPE Act, HB1329, were both passed.

The HOPE Act would increase access to naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug and would require hospitals to establish a new protocol when discharging patients treated for substance abuse disorders. It also introduced Keep the Door Open, a provision that provides three years of funding to reimburse community health providers. The act also requires the Behavioral Health Administration to establish a crisis treatment center before June 2018.

The Start Talking Maryland Act would require schools to have defined education programs on opioid addiction.

Other opioid related bills passed by the General Assembly were HB1432, which places a restriction on the number of opioid painkillers a doctor can prescribe to a patient per visit, and SB539, a bill that sets new penalties for distributing fentanyl.

The opioid-related legislation have been sent to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk for his signature. The governor has until May 30 to either sign or veto the 900 bills passed by the General Assembly; otherwise they automatically become law.

On March 1, Hogan signed an executive order, declaring a state of emergency in response to the heroin, opioids and fentanyl crisis “ravaging communities in Maryland and across the country.”

“We need to treat this crisis the exact same way we would treat any other state emergency,” Hogan said in a statement. “This is about taking an all-hands-on-deck approach so that together we can save the lives of thousands of Marylanders.”

The final numbers for 2016 are expected to show that approximately 2,000 people died from heroin and other opioid overdoses in the state over the last year, about double the number of deaths in 2015.

Additionally, drug overdose deaths rose by 19.2 percent from 2013 to 2014 in Maryland, according to a press release from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

“There’s no question, no question there has been a spike in opioid overdoses,” Cardin said in an interview with Capital News Service. “Let me indicate the numbers in Maryland are shocking as we are seeing the doubling and tripling over the last couple of years, but the Maryland numbers are typical to what we see all over the country.”

Both Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen backed passage of the 21st Century Cures Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015 (CARA). Van Hollen was a cosponsor for the 21st Century Cures Act.

“The opioid addiction epidemic is having a devastating impact on communities in Maryland and across the country,” Van Hollen said in a statement for Capital News Service. “I fought to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, which helps states expand programs to treat those suffering from addiction, but we must do much more to prevent substance abuse and to get help to those who need it.”

The 21st Century Cures Act was signed by President Barack Obama in December. It will provide $1 billion over two years for state grants to support opioid abuse prevention and treatment activities. CARA, a bipartisan bill, was signed into law by Obama last July. CARA assists drug-dependent newborns and their parents.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services has just awarded Maryland a $10 million grant under the 21st Century Cures Act.

“These grants are a small but encouraging step toward addressing the opioid crisis,” Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, said in a statement. He was among those who pressed for the funds in the law. “But to make real progress in our effort to combat the epidemic, it’s the responsibility of Congress to provide additional resources to programs, families and communities in Maryland and across America that are working day in and day out to end the crisis.”

Van Hollen said there is more to be done with the crisis, including “protecting the significant investments made by the Affordable Care Act, and ensuring institutions like the National Institute for Drug Abuse at NIH in Maryland and others across the country have the resources necessary to carry out their critical missions.”

On March 29, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a presidential commission designed to combat opioid addiction and the opioid crisis nationwide. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is leading the commission.

A main reason for the doubling of overdoses for Maryland has been a new street drug, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that dealers are increasingly blending into regular heroin and selling cheaply.

Fentanyl is coming to the United States from China, and that needs to be stopped, Cardin said. The senator added that there also is work to be done with Mexico to stop heroin from flowing from that country.

“We’ve seen an abuse of using these drugs for pain and an abuse of people selling these drugs on the street and getting people addicted,” Cardin said. “There are things we can do to dry up the supply and help people who have addiction and health issues.”

In response to the rise in drug-related deaths, Hogan announced on March 1 that he has budgeted an additional $10 million per year to combat overdoses over the next five years.

Miller said Hogan’s action would help, but more money is needed from the federal government.

Miller is no stranger to opioid abuse as well. She said her husband, Greg Miller, had been abusing opioids since the late 1990s after he was hit by a drunk driver and had an additional, separate accident at work.

It reached a point where her husband’s withdrawals were so terrible that he almost died after being denied narcotics prescriptions at Frederick Memorial Hospital six years ago, Miller said.

“I was trying to get my husband off the pills, never thinking that my own kids would go on them after they saw the hell that I was put through,” Miller said.

Three years ago, Miller co-founded Maryland Heroin Awareness Advocates (MHAA), a grassroots organization in Frederick. It was founded “out of necessity,” by a group of women from Frederick in order to save their children from the opioid and heroin epidemic, Miller said.

“We have all been affected in some way, a lot of my colleagues have lost their children to overdoses,” said Miller, who is the president of MHAA.

Miller noted that there is not enough education about these drugs in schools. While one of her colleagues is invited into middle and high schools in Carroll County to give presentations, MHAA is “just nipping the bud” at giving presentations in Frederick County, Miller said.

Frederick County is a 40,000-student district with 10 high schools.

“We really give the principals the autonomy to address any issue in their community,” said Mike Maroke, Frederick County Public Schools deputy superintendent. “They determine if this is something be address or not.”

If the Start Talking Maryland Act is signed by Hogan, it would require schools to have opioid education programs, possibly through presentations such as MHAA’s.

After one presentation at a school, Miller handed out index cards to the students, ranging from seventh to twelfth grades, and asked for their feedback. She recalled what happened next: “One little girl came up to me and handed me her card and it said ‘Thank you for coming out and telling us about drugs because I wouldn’t want to lose any friends because my dad died a couple of months ago from a heroin overdose.’”

 

by Jess Nocera

 

Ecosystem: Lawmakers Blast Trump Budget that would Cut Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

Lawmakers from states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday expressed bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s proposal to end federal support for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

“The president’s budget that would zero out the Chesapeake Bay Program is outrageous,” Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill meeting with members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said cutting investments for the bay clean up will not help the economy.

“Our Chesapeake Bay is an economic engine and the cleaner it is the more it produces economically,” he said.

The nonprofit coalition hosted its fifth annual lobbying day, centered around saving the federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program after Trump last month proposed a “skinny budget” that would eliminate the $73 million bay restoration project.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides the program with monetary support to restore the bay’s ecosystem and reduce pollution.

Started in 1983, the program is conducted under a six-state partnership with Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia.

Advocates from each state attended the meeting with lawmakers.

“We know how important the Chesapeake Bay is for the entire region,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “We are going to fight harder and harder and harder.”

Ruppersberger said the bay generates more than $1 trillion annually and the restoration of oysters, tributaries and streams is a project that needs to be continued.

The bay is a source of drinking water for 75 percent of the region’s 17 million residents, according to the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

The Chesapeake also is the largest estuary in the United States serving as a place for recreational water activities, as well as a workplace for the commercial fishing and crabbing industry.

Made up of 225 local, state, and national groups, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has been advocating for a healthy Chesapeake watershed since 2009.

“The Coalition will work to continue to push back on the president’s proposed budget, and secure the essential funding that is necessary to return clean water to the Chesapeake Bay,” coalition spokeswoman Kristin Reilly said in a statement Wednesday.

Members of the House and Senate said they were pleased to have bipartisan support for clean water.

“The Chesapeake Bay is the perfect thing to come together around and serve energetically,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, last year’s Democratic vice presidential nominee.

He said everyone has to work together to make sure checks and balances are implemented.

“We have an EPA administrator who doesn’t accept science. If you don’t accept climate science, it’s a fair question to ask if you accept science,” Kaine said, referring to Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA.

Trump signed an executive order last week to shut down the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a program aimed at reducing climate change by cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

“We are faced with a tough budget battle, but an attitude from the EPA that says we can ignore science,” Kaine said.

The bay is a valuable natural resource and if Trump wants more jobs, then he should work to rehabilitate the bay, Wittman said.

The congressman said he was deeply concerned about Trump’s budget plan and wrote a letter to the administration asking to restore resources to the bay.

Wittman wants more money to help revitalize wetlands.

“Our wetlands are the nursery for everything that lives in those ecosystems…mother nature is the sponge that absorbs what man puts in it,” he said.

By Briana Thomas

Annapolis: Maryland Could Expand Options to Treat Addiction Remotely

A bill that could expand telemedicine to include counseling for substance abuse disorders, which could help thwart the ballooning heroin-opioid epidemic in the state, is advancing in the Maryland General Assembly.

Telemedicine, or the use of virtual tools like video chats to provide health care services, has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2015, about 15 million Americans used telemedicine, a 50 percent increase from 2013, according to the American Telemedicine Association.

Although some health insurance providers do offer telemedicine for the treatment of substance abuse disorder, the bill, sponsored by Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, would ensure that this would include counseling for addiction treatment.

“Counseling is a critical component of the recovery process, and works hand in hand with medication-assisted treatment,” wrote the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland in testimony in support of the bill. “This bill would help ensure the most efficient use of clinicians who are paneled with commercial (health insurance) carriers by allowing them to deliver counseling services through telehealth.”

There has been a growing push for the the adoption of telemedicine for the treatment of substance abuse disorders, said Yngvild Olsen, the director of a Baltimore outpatient substance use disorder treatment program.

However, some Medicaid regulations have hindered reimbursement of telemedicine for substance-abuse counseling services, Olsen said, adding that if regulations are clarified, Maryland could begin seeing a more widespread adoption of the treatment method.

“This is something that there is a significant amount of interest in because of the lack of behavioral health counseling and other behavioral health services in many areas of the state,” Olsen told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Opioid-related deaths in Maryland have doubled from 529 in 2011 to 1,089 in 2015, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Pockets in the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland have had trouble attracting enough health care providers to treat the problem there, Olsen said.

Moreover, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has designated parts of Baltimore City and all of Harford County as areas where there is a shortage of health professionals, specifically for mental health.

Although other states have begun adopting a more widespread use of telemedicine for opioid-heroin substance abuse treatment, Maryland has only a few pockets where these services are available, Olsen said.

The first telemedicine program to treat addiction in Maryland started with a partnership between the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Wells House, a Hagerstown, Maryland, drug treatment program.

After one of the Wells House’s doctors retired, the staff were looking for a solution to keep up with the “ever-increasing” demand, said Paul Smith, the telemedicine program coordinator.

So they enlisted the help of University of Maryland Medical Center doctors who remotely meet with patients and prescribe them medication to treat their addictions by video chatting through their television screens, Smith said.

“It’s so versatile,” Smith said. “They can literally plug in here in a matter of seconds.”

Wells House prescribes medication for about 30 to 35 patients per week using this technology on average, Smith said. Since the program’s launch in 2015, the University of Maryland Medical Center has expanded its partnerships to include the Garrett County Health Department to offer similar services there, he added.

Recent studies have shown that telemedicine can be an effective way to treat substance-abuse disorders.

West Virginia University physicians recently conducted a study to determine whether telemedicine could provide similar outcomes as in-person treatment for patients in medication-assisted treatment programs.

Doctors remotely met with 46 patients in 30-minute group sessions to prescribe them buprenorphine, an opioid medication, by videoconferencing, and met with 54 patients face-to-face. Both groups followed these sessions with an in-person hour-long therapy group.

In the telemedicine group, 49 percent achieved 90 consecutive days of abstinence, compared with 37 percent in the in-person group.

Wanhong Zheng, a doctor who worked on the project, said expanding programs like these could be especially helpful for those with substance abuse disorders living in rural areas, where some patients have to drive up to five hours once a week just to go to a clinic.

This lack of treatment availability, one of the many challenges those hoping to treat an opioid addiction face, can be overcome by expanding telemedicine programs, Zheng said.

Maryland’s House of Delegates passed the bill and the state Senate is planning to hold a hearing on it April 4.

By Natalie Schwartz

Maryland Democrats Redistricting Reform Hinges on Five other States

Democrats in the Maryland legislature are advancing a bill that would create an independent commission to redraw the state’s congressional districts, but only if five other mid-Atlantic states implement similar reforms by the end of 2032. 
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan proposed reforms that, if passed in a referendum, would take away lawmakers’ power to create districts. 
 
Redistricting and its ugly cousin, gerrymandering, are emerging as major nationwide issues, and reform efforts have the potential to fundamentally reorder politics in several state governments as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.  
 
The Democrats’ plan creates an independent commission to draw legislative districts if five other states — New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina — do the same by 2032. They would all have to pass reforms by the end of 2020 for the bill to affect the next redistricting process, which will be based on the results of the 2020 census.
 
Hogan’s plan would have added a referendum on a constitutional amendment to the next general election ballot. If passed by voters, the amendment would have stripped the General Assembly of its power to draw congressional districts and replaced the process with an independent commission. Democrats defeated the governor’s plan in committee. 
 
One of the major obstacles to independent redistricting, in Maryland and elsewhere, is the fear that leveling the playing field at the state level will put one national party at a disadvantage against still-gerrymandered states where the opposition party is in control. 
 
The five states mentioned in the Democrats’ bill and Maryland currently send a total of 45 Republicans and 44 Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives. 
 
State Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery, the lead sponsor of the Democrats’ bill, acknowledged that this nearly even split makes it less likely that reform will give either party an immediate advantage at the national level. The dominant party in those states would surrender the advantage that partisan redistricting gives them in exchange for neutralizing that advantage in another state where their party is in the minority.
 
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that regional compacts, such as the one proposed by Democrats, are unlikely to succeed. 
 
Outside of a Supreme Court ruling that finds gerrymandering unconstitutional, Eberly said, the most likely source of national redistricting reform might be Republicans in Congress. If Republicans lose state legislatures and governorships in the 2018 and 2020 elections, the last elections before the next census, they may lose control of redistricting in the affected states. 
 
If the losses are big enough, Eberly suggested, Congressional Republicans might be motivated to reform redistricting to prevent Democrats from solidifying their victories through gerrymandering.
 
The Supreme Court has acknowledged in principle that partisan gerrymandering could be so extreme in certain cases that it might violate the equal representation clause of the Constitution. The problem is that the Court has yet to find a reliable test to determine how much gerrymandering is too much. 
 
In 2016, Wisconsin’s state assembly maps were ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered by a federal district court. The case relies on the results of the 2012 and 2014 elections, where Democrats won the majority of the statewide general assembly vote, but Republicans still won 60 of the 99 seats in the assembly. That case has been appealed and is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in 2017. 
 
Widespread redistricting reform, whether through interstate compacts like the one proposed in Maryland or a ruling from the Supreme Court, has the potential to massively reshape American politics. 
 
Excluding vacancies, Democrats currently hold about 45 percent of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, against the 55 percent held by Republicans. Though difficult to quantify, some of the Republican lead is likely due to the party’s superior strength at the state level, which has allowed it to create favorable congressional district maps in more states, containing more total representatives, than the Democratic Party. 
 
In recent decades, Democrats and Republicans have fallen into a reliable cycle of power. With a unified Republican government in Washington, the question is not whether Democrats will take back control, but when. A sudden shift to non-partisan redistricting would likely narrow the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the House, potentially hastening the return to Democratic power. 
 
That is likely one of the reasons why Barack Obama has reportedly decided to pursue redistricting reform as part of his post-presidency agenda. As president, Obama presided over historic losses for his party at the state level and in Congress. Independent redistricting might offer something of a moon-shot to recover from those losses far faster than the usual cycle of political power would allow. 
By Jacob Taylor

Annapolis: Senate Democrats Push Bills in Time to Override Hogan Vetoes

Democrats in the Maryland Senate on Tuesday passed several pieces of legislation that are largely opposed by Gov. Larry Hogan, most notably a bill that would regulate the parameters for school evaluations and another that would require the state to fund Planned Parenthood should federal funding for that program be lost.

In addition to the Democrats’ package of legislation, both the House and Senate passed the state’s operating budget for the 2018 fiscal year on Tuesday.

The fiscal legislation passed after Hogan, a Republican, agreed to include $23 million for Baltimore City Public Schools in a supplemental budget. The funding for public schools had been a point of conflict in the budget negotiations.

This year’s budget process reportedly went significantly smoother than it did in the past two legislative sessions. The final budget checks in at $43.5 billion and leaves $144 million unappropriated to deposit into the state’s rainy day fund.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said, “I really felt this year for the first time that (Hogan’s) staff worked a lot (and) were more hands on in terms of working with the budget committees; that makes it a lot easier.”

The Senate on Tuesday also took up legislation that the governor has signalled he is likely to veto. With the end of the session approaching, Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Maryland Legislature, needed to pass the bills soon to ensure enough time to override any vetoes during this session.

On Tuesday, Democrats passed the school-evaluation bill; the Planned Parenthood contingency funding; and a bill to preserve sanctuary oyster beds until December 2018. All three pieces of legislation passed largely on party lines.

Another significant piece of legislation, a resolution that would authorize the state’s attorney general to pursue cases against the federal government on a wide range of issues, was delayed to Wednesday. The resolution is widely seen as an effort to challenge policies coming out of the Trump Administration.

With control of Congress and the White House, Republicans have their best chance in years of cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Maryland Democrats in the Senate passed a House bill Tuesday that would require the state make up the potential federal funding loss.

The Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2017 proposed in Congress, aims to remove to Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.’s access to federal funds for one year.

Hogan’s current budget includes $9.9 million for the Title X Family Planning Program, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The designated funds include $6 million in general funds, which satisfies the federal maintenance of effort requirement, and $3.9 million in anticipated federal funds, according to the analysis.

The bill would require the state to make up the $3.9 million lost from federal funding to its best ability, taking into consideration the limitations of the budget, according to the analysis.

The Title X Family Planning Program serves approximately 71,000 Maryland women at more than 75 clinical sites, according to the department’s analysis.

Sen. Gail Bates, R-Carroll and Howard, urged for transparency in the bill with an amendment to require the company to provide a report that breaks down the types of services that are provided. She argued that the report might even provide “comfort” if it confirms that abortions are a minimal percentage of the services Planned Parenthood provides. The proposed amendment failed.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, said this information can be found in a Medicaid report. Madaleno also made a point to specify that this bill does not fund abortions, but gives funds to allow Planned Parenthood to continue providing other women’s health services.

Another measure, the Protect Our Schools Act of 2017, would set standards for the plan to improve student outcomes that the state submits to the U.S. Department of Education. The sticking point for lawmakers is that the bill may not sufficiently weigh academic achievement when assessing schools, in which case the state could lose nearly $250 million in federal funding. Furthermore, the bill restricts the state’s ability to intervene in failing schools, which opponents worry is intended to limit the creation of charter schools and voucher systems.

The bill specifies which measures could be considered when determining a school’s quality, prohibiting student testing from being one of them.

Republicans opposed the bill largely on the grounds that it undermines school choice and makes it more difficult for students in struggling schools to get an effective education.

Several Republicans expressed concern that the bill would prevent the state from improving struggling schools for several years. Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford, attempted a filibuster, but the Democratic majority limited debate after about 15 minutes.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, defended the bill, saying emphatically that it “does not remove charter schools” and that it only prevents the state board of education from approving charter schools without local input. However, he also said that part of the motivation for the bill is a concern that some leaders in the state department of education want to privatize schools, introduce vouchers, and “destroy our public school system.”

The state’s Department of Education could not be immediately reached for comment.

Sen. Steven Hershey, R- Caroline, Cecil, Kent & Queen Anne’s, described the bill as part of a “battle between the school board and the teachers’ union” and said he was “not convinced that this entire body knows what it’s doing.” He proposed an amendment that would have delayed the effects of the bill until five other specific states with highly ranked education systems come forward with similar plans; the amendment was rejected.

Madaleno insisted “we are not rushing this bill,” that “this is not a partisan issue, this is not about who is president or who is governor,” and that “this is our one chance to in fact be a national leader to set up the most comprehensive set of standards to determine how schools succeed and how they don’t.”

Baltimore City schools were repeatedly cited as examples of places where students would benefit from being able to move out of struggling public schools and into charter schools or, through a voucher, pay down the cost of a private school.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, defended the Baltimore public school system, saying that “they may not have succeeded to the extent that some would like to see but our efforts are strong.”

In a statement, Hogan said he believes “very strongly that every child in Maryland deserves a great education, regardless of what neighborhood they happen to grow up in” and that “this legislation would make that nearly impossible.” The governor has said he will veto the bill.

By Jacob Taylor and Cara Newcomer

–Capital News Service correspondent Jake Brodsky contributed to this report.

Annapolis: General Assembly Leaders push for Plan to Increase Diversity in Medical Marijuana Licenses

The president of the Maryland Senate is sponsoring a bill to increase diversity in medical marijuana grower licenses after a spate of other legislation addressing the issue has failed to gain traction in the Maryland General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, would grant up to five more growing licenses and increase the likelihood they would go to minority-owned businesses. The Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission would partner with historically black colleges and universities and conduct outreach targeted toward minorities and women, under Miller’s bill.

Maryland has had one of slowest rollouts of medical marijuana in the country. The commission, which grants licenses to growers, processors and dispensaries, has been hampered by legal battles and subsequent legislation since Maryland legalized medical cannabis in 2014.

To squash pending lawsuits, the five new licenses would include two businesses that are currently suing the commission.

After complaints surfaced that the commission didn’t fairly include representation in areas of southeastern Maryland, the commission revised their original unanimous decision on the 15 companies slated to receive growing licenses by bumping two higher-scoring applicants, GTI and Maryland Cultivation and Processing LLC, and replacing them with two lower-scoring applicants from the underrepresented areas.

Representatives from GTI confirmed that they would withdraw their suit against the commission if they can acquire a license under this new legislation.

Moreover, the Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year called for an overhaul of the commission after expressing outrage when none of the 15 pre-approved growing companies for licenses was owned by African Americans.

While the bill does not prohibit current members of the commission from being reappointed, it does shrink the commission from 16 to nine members, said Victoria Gruber, Miller’s chief of staff. The bill also includes language to create a more “diverse board” to better reflect the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of Maryland, she added.

While previous bills to increase the diversity have included a preference for minority-owned business, this may violate the U.S. Constitution, Cheryl A. Brown-Whitfield, principal counsel of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said earlier this session.

Maryland would need to conduct a study to evaluate whether discrimination does exist in the medical cannabis industry before it could take race-conscious measures in awarding licenses, Zenita Hurley, the Maryland attorney general’s director of legislative affairs and civil rights, told lawmakers earlier this session.

However, to speed the process the state may be able to hire an expert to review existing disparity studies, such as in the agriculture or pharmaceutical fields, to determine whether the state can move forward with a preference for minority-owned businesses in Maryland’s medical marijuana industry without a full-blown study, Gruber said.

The bill proposes to employ either a disparity study or an expert to determine whether there is a need for a minority-business preference before doling out the three remaining licenses, Gruber said.

It would also establish a fund to provide veterans and low-income patients with a way to pay for the drug. This would be provided through a 1 percent fee on growers and processors and 0.5 percent fee on dispensaries, Gruber said. The commission will be able to adjust these fees, she added.

The commission expected medical cannabis to be available to patients this summer, Vanessa Lyon, a spokeswoman for the group, said in late February.

– 30 –

Oyster Sanctuary Bill finds Support in House of Delegates

The House of Delegates voted 102-39 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would keep intact existing oyster sanctuaries on the Chesapeake Bay, a blow to the commercial fishing industry’s efforts to expand the state’s oyster fisheries.

Supporters and opponents of the bill, named the Oyster Management Plan, are both saying that their solution is best for the long-term health of the bay and its oyster population, which helps clean the Chesapeake by filtering nutrients like excess algae out of the water column.

“(The Oyster Management Plan) protects the fragile progress that has been made to date in recovering oyster populations,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in written testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Feb. 24. “This bill would in no way impact (the Department of Natural Resource’s) ability to manage the public oyster fishery, including the development of rotational harvest management for public oyster bottom.”

Bill opponents, such as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, disagreed, saying that harvesting in the sanctuaries is vital to maintaining existing oyster stock in “idle” areas.

“There’s this idea that the sanctuaries would be generating all this oyster larvae,” coalition spokesman Chip MacLeod said to the committee on Feb. 24. “That larvae does no good unless it has a clean, hard bottom to strike. One of the things that doesn’t work with the oyster sanctuary theory is that we don’t have clean, hard bottom (around these sanctuaries).”

Opening parts of the sanctuaries to commercial use, MacLeod said, would remove aging oysters whose environmental usefulness had subsided, and free up space for oyster larvae to flourish.

The Department of Natural Resources, the agency that controls the sanctuaries, opposes the bill.

Opponents point to a 2010-2015 study conducted by the Oyster Advisory Commission, a Natural Resources department subsidiary, that concluded that there is “justification” to adjust current sanctuary boundaries.

“There are sanctuaries that are known to have poor habitat and/or very low densities of oysters,” the advisory commission’s study report said. “If the ultimate goal is to have more oysters in the water, then some areas that are currently sanctuaries could contribute to this goal and provide economic and cultural benefits to fishing communities.”

Conversely, a bill enacted in 2016, the Sustainable Oyster Population and Fishery Act, mandates that the Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, conduct a study to adopt a science-based fishery management plan by 2018. Supporters want to see this study concluded before allowing the department to entertain any ideas of opening sanctuaries to harvest.

Opponents contend that doing so undermines the efforts of the department and its advisory commission.

“The (Oyster Advisory Commission) is doing all of this good work, because the prior administration wouldn’t adopt a management plan,” Delmarva Fisheries Association chairman and waterman Rob Newberry told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Newberry told the Environment and Transportation Committee that the bill would “kill” the management plan adopted by the commission.

Supporters of the bill contend that oyster populations have not recovered enough to sustain themselves without protection.

Citing a self-commissioned poll that found 88 percent of Marylanders support sanctuaries and a 2016 Department of Natural Resources report that found oysters are thriving inside designated sanctuaries but not outside them, the bay foundation said in a press release, “Sanctuaries are Maryland’s insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state’s oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce.”

The bill was voted on favorably with a couple amendments by the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Tuesday before it moved to the House floor. The amendments would prevent anyone from using the bill to block any sanctuary projects.

The bill is expected to be heard by the Senate in the coming weeks.

By Jack Chavez

Trump Budget Plan draws Mostly Negative Reviews among Maryland Lawmakers

Maryland Democrats on Thursday voiced their displeasure with the Trump administration’s budget proposals, citing federal cuts to Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Institutes of Health.

“The Trump budget is great if you can get on a plane every weekend and fly to Mar-a-Lago, but it stinks for everybody else,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “If you look at the cost to the taxpayer to fly to Mar-a-Lago each weekend, it’s about $3 million, estimated.”

To put that number into perspective, Van Hollen said that the federal budget for Meals on Wheels, a program that helps feed 2.4 million seniors in the United States, is also $3 million, but the proposed “budget wipes out” the money for this program.

Programs for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup also would be eliminated if the budget were approved.

This cleanup is the largest effort to restore a body of water in U.S. history.

“The Chesapeake Bay is essential to our livelihood, our economy … the idea that this can be stopped is hard to believe,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker in a press call.

When Baker and fellow CBF members heard of the initial budget cut from $73 million to $5 million last week, Baker said it “was very hard to ascertain how accurate that really was.”

However, the release of Trump’s budget shows that the cut will actually be total.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Baker and Van Hollen each stressed that this spending cut could cause fish, oyster and crab populations in the bay to diminish quickly, as well as increased amounts of dirty water that could result in beaches closing and tourism dollars plummeting.

“Universally, Congress must quickly reject the president’s budget before the absurdity of his proposed cuts…causes ripples of uncertainty and fear across the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed economy,” Cardin said in a statement. “At a time when we have seen nitrogen levels dropping and dead zones shrinking, President Trump is intent on turning the clock back decades.”

Baker noted that the president’s desire to zero out funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup is “an insult to all who have worked to try and save the Chesapeake Bay.”

Maryland’s only Republican Congressman, Rep. Andy Harris, of Cockeysville, and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that the Chesapeake Bay is a “treasure,” and that he will continue working with the Trump administration to “prioritize” Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts within the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another major area that would take a hit if the proposed federal budget were approved is the National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, Md. NIH would lose $5.8 billion, a 20 percent reduction in its overall budget of $30 billion.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, took to Twitter Thursday morning to fight back: “A message for Donald Trump: keep your petty little hands off the large indispensable mission of @NIH. #TrumpCuts.” Raskin further tweeted that the “#TrumpCuts to @NIH are outrageous,” saying that NIH is the leader of biomedical research in the world and supports 400,000 jobs.

Additionally, it “includes a major reorganization” of NIH’S 27 institutes and centers, although what the administration is planning for the reorganization remains unclear.

“President Trump’s hypocrisy on infrastructure is astounding,” said Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, in a statement. “Less than a month ago the president talked about building gleaming new infrastructure, but when it comes time to put up or shut up, we see cuts, not anything signaling new investment.”

Among the 19 independent agencies that Trump wants to defund is the Appalachian Regional Commission. The ARC is a federal-state partnership focused on economic development in western parts of Maryland and areas of several other states. The call to defund the ARC is noteworthy because the commission serves a region that not only largely supported Trump’s campaign but is also an area that Trump promised to rejuvenate economically.

The ARC provides grants to nonprofit organizations (schools and organizations that build low-cost housing), state and local agencies and governmental entities.

“President Trump said he would help America’s forgotten men and women, but his budget does just the opposite,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said in a statement.
“His budget would devastate working families across this nation while at the same time lavishing extravagant favors on his rich friends.”

Delaney wrote in his statement that he felt Trump’s “economically illiterate budget” was an attack on Maryland and said that all elected officials in Maryland should “be marching to the White House to object this budget.”

He also called on Governor Larry Hogan to “forcefully reject this budget.”

The Trump administration’s proposed budget hopes to raise defense spending in 2018 by $52 billion to $639 billion, a 9 percent increase from last year’s budget.

“This budget will be a public safety and national security budget,” Trump said during a Feb. 27 White House press conference. Trump has touted his defense budget as one of the largest single-year increases in defense spending in history as he aims to strengthen the American military.

According to The Washington Post, the proposed budget will increase the sizes of the Army, the Marine Corps as well as the Navy’s fleet.

The budget proposal also aims to increase spending for the Department of Homeland Security by 7 percent, or $2.8 billion, with immigration reform as the lead motivator.

“As the worldwide terrorist threat and other international dangers grow,” Harris said, “President Trump’s proposed increases in defense and homeland security spending are vital for continuing to keep Americans safe, and I support his proposed increases.”

Increases in homeland security spending could generate the hiring of hundreds of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as provide funding for Trump’s Mexico border wall.

“I thought President Trump said that Mexico was going to pay for this wall,” Van Hollen said. “Look, I think all of us recognize we need more security….but the thing about the wall is that all the experts tell you that it is just a waste of money, that it will not achieve its goal.”

By Abby Mergenmeier, Jess Nocera And Nate Harold

Annapolis: Gov. Hogan Touts Legislative Agenda in Late-session Push

Gov. Larry Hogan is pleased with the passage of some items from his 2017 legislative agenda but, at a press conference Wednesday, offered scathing rebukes to some of his political opponents, whom he accused of playing politics at the expense of Marylanders.

Hogan commended the passage of several bills as examples of bipartisanship, including the Victims of Sex Trafficking Act, the Clean Water Commerce Act, and the More Jobs for Marylanders Act, which would provide a tax break to manufacturing companies in high-unemployment areas.

In contrast, he slammed Democrats in the legislature for pressing forward with a bill that expands paid sick leave after effectively defeating his bill on the same subject. Hogan said the Democrats’ sick leave bill would be “dead on arrival” if passed and sent to his desk. He said Democrats were trying to manipulate the issue to “put points on the board” that could be used against him in the 2018 election.

In a written statement, Bryan Lesswing, senior communications adviser for the Maryland Democratic Party, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that “with Maryland working families in need of earned sick leave more than ever before, it’s disappointing that Governor Larry Hogan continues to point fingers and shift blame rather than put an honest effort into working with Democrats across the aisle.”

The Working Matters advocacy coalition, which consists of groups that support the Democrats’ paid sick leave bill, said via Twitter that they are “disappointed” by Hogan’s pledge to veto the legislation.

In January, Hogan said that repealing The Open Transportation and Investment Act — which he disparagingly refers to as the “Roadkill Bill” — was one of his primary goals during the 2017 legislative session.

He said he was pleased with a version of his repeal bill that arrived on the Senate floor Wednesday with amendments proposed by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s.

The revised bill keeps the project-ranking system of the original law, but delays the implementation of other aspects for two years. Hogan expressed confidence Wednesday that his administration would defeat the delayed parts of the law if they reemerge in the future. Hogan praised the amended bill as an effective compromise, saying that neither political party won, but that “the people of Maryland won.”

However, Hogan later accused Miller in stark terms of holding up his nomination of Dennis Schrader as health secretary for “political reasons.” Hogan said he would hold Miller personally responsible for any negative consequences that arise due to the absence of a confirmed secretary to lead the department of health.

Miller’s office declined to comment.

The Commonsense Spending Act would essentially cap automatic spending increases below state revenue increases. That bill is moving through the legislature, but House Republicans on Wednesday tried to attach its provisions as amendments to the House budget bill; Democrats defeated those amendments.

Hogan has pushed for an increase in charter schools and the accessibility of private schools through a variety of initiatives.

One such program, called BOOST, would provide scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.

The program has received bipartisan praise in the past, but the House Appropriations Committee has moved to cut its 2018 funding from the $7 million proposed by Hogan to just over $2 million. Hogan called the reductions “unusual” and “hypocritical,” explaining that several Democrats who voted for the reductions did so despite supporting the program last year.

The governor has also pushed for redistricting reform that seeks to end the practice of gerrymandering, as well as ethics reforms that would make it more difficult for former public officials to become lobbyists and require the legislature to publish video and audio recordings of its floor proceedings.

By Jacob Taylor

Annapolis: Legislation May Remove Parental Rights in Sex-assault Cases

Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would enable a court to revoke parental rights of an individual who has been found to have committed rape against the other parent and if a court finds that it is in the child’s best interest to remove the parental rights.

The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate Thursday.

“We’re so pleased the bill came out of the House,” Lisae Jordan, executive director for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We look forward to seeing what happens with it in the (Senate) Judicial Proceedings Committee.”

The pair of companion bills has bipartisan support. The House bill has 94 co-sponsors and there are 36 co-sponsors in the Senate. The bills allow a court to decide whether a parent should have their parental rights revoked if they committed an unwanted sexual act against the other parent that resulted in conceiving a child.

Current law states that a victim cannot have the parental rights of an assailant revoked if the conception of a child came from a sexual assault.

“The purpose of this bill is to provide a process where if a child was conceived without consent, there would be a court process where the one parent could go forward and say ‘I would like my attacker’s parental rights terminated,’” Delegate Kathy Dumais, lead sponsor for the House bill, told the House Judiciary committee on Feb. 9.

“No one suggests terminating parental rights should be taken lightly. We have tried to make it crystal clear that it’s not supposed to be easy.”

The bill allows a victim of a sexual assault that has resulted in a pregnancy to ask a court to terminate the parental rights of the assailant. The court must meet certain provisions laid out in the bill before it terminates those rights.

Activists testifying at the hearing emphasized that a suspect could use the threat of parental rights against a victim.

“These legal rights essentially allow him to blackmail his victim by refusing to agree to adoption or continuing to pursue custody unless she makes concessions,” Diana Rubin, a commissioner for the Montgomery County Commission for Women, told the committee.

Decisions in the family court, which is a civil proceeding, can’t be used in a criminal court. If the family court determines that parental rights can be revoked, that there is clear and convincing evidence that a sexual assault occurred, that decision can’t be used against the defendant in any other court.

“The strength in this bill is that there is a great deal of protection for everyone involved,” Jordan testified. “This is something we need.”

Under current law, the second parent must be notified if the victim wishes to put the child up for adoption. The assailant has rights to halt adoption processes.

Activists who testified at the Judiciary Committee said that often a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy when they learn that their assailant has parental rights that can’t be revoked.

“If someone has forced themselves on someone else, there’s no way to just terminate the rapist’s rights,” Jordan testified. “This is a problem that needs to be solved. The courthouse doors are closed to women who become pregnant as a result of rape.”

“A sexual assault is a devastating experience and a pregnancy resulting from that sexual assault is a daily reminder of that violation,” Colby Wittenberg, domestic infant program manager for Adoptions Together, testified. “Without the protection of this bill, women who become pregnant as a result of a rape lose their privacy at best. At worst, they face the unimaginable circumstance of potentially co-parenting with their assailant.”

Under the bill, a child conceived from sexual assault could also file to have parental rights revoked through a court appointed representative or through a guardian.

Under current law, if the assailant is not known, the woman’s name and plans for adoption have to be advertised in local newspapers in an attempt to notify the assailant of the victim’s plans.

The court can’t terminate parental rights if the parents were married at the time the child was conceived, unless the suspect has been convicted of rape or if there was a protective order in place at the time of conception, under the bill.

In other cases, where the parents were not married, the court can revoke parental rights if there is a conviction or if the court determines there is clear and convincing evidence that a rape occurred, according to a state document, under the bill.

The court must also decide that removing parental rights is in the best interest of the child. The bill says a child’s parent can file to have the parental rights of the assailant revoked within seven years of the child’s birth, or when the parent should have known the identity of the other parent.

Termination of parental rights means that the parent’s rights of guardianship and visitation are revoked. It also removes the parent’s responsibility to support the child financially.

“I think this is one of the only bills where the Maryland Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood will sit at a table together because many of those women who walked away from adoption, elected to terminate the pregnancy.” Dumais said. Both groups submitted written testimony supporting the bill.

By CARRIE SNURR