Cancer survivor backs bill on medical marijuana

February 07, 2005

Steve Terrell, The New Mexican

Erin Armstrong, a 23-year-old woman from Santa Fe who is a cancer survivor, dreads the day she gets taken off her parents' insurance plan. After that, the medication she takes for nausea will cost her $3,000 a month.

That's why she is asking state lawmakers to pass a medical-marijuana bill.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, told reporters Monday that he will sponsor a bill in which the state Health Department would oversee a program to legally provide marijuana to sufferers of specific medical conditions.

Armstrong, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was 17, said, 'It's not just a drug issue. It's a patients-rights issue. Patients should not have to decide if keeping down your next meal is worth getting arrested.'

Armstrong, who now lives in Albuquerque, said she takes a drug called Zofran to control her nausea. It works well, she said, but it's very expensive.

Without insurance, a bottle of 36 pills costs more than $1,000, she said. It would cost more than $3,000 a month for Zofran without insurance.

'I'm afraid I won't have access to affordable treatment,' Armstrong said.

In past medical-marijuana debates, some opponents of the idea have touted a drug called Marinol, which contains THC, a chemical found in marijuana. However, that drug, manufactured by the Solvay company, also is very expensive. According to Web sites selling prescription drugs, Marinol costs between $4.31 and more than $16 a pill, depending on the strength.

McSorley, at a news conference Monday, said under his bill, medical marijuana, grown at a facility licensed by the state, would be free to patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV or AIDS, epilepsy or spinal-cord injuries.

In the past, the pharmaceutical industry has not been visibly active in opposing medical-marijuana legislation. But the industry -- which in 2002 contributed more than $97,000 to New Mexico political campaigns, including $40,000 to Gov. Bill Richardson -- stands to lose if marijuana became a free and legal treatment.

GlaxoSmithKline, the company that manufactures Zofran, contributed more than $13,000 to New Mexico politicians in 2002, according to the Institute of Money in State Politics (www.followthemoney.org). No New Mexico political contributions could be found for the Solvay company. The most visible opposition to medical marijuana has come from law enforcement. That also could be the case this year.

Mike Bowen, a retired state-police commander who works as a lobbyist for police organizations, said Monday he hasn't yet seen the bill, but his organizations probably would oppose McSorley's legislation if it is similar to past bills.

'It's mainly because of not enough controls built in,' he said. 'Also, there are synthetic drugs that can be used. And it's still against federal law.'

The U.S. Supreme Court currently is considering a case that could determine whether the federal government can prosecute ailing marijuana users who use the drug with their state's approval.

Legislative support for medical marijuana seems to have withered from the days of former Gov. Gary Johnson, who made drug-law reform a legislative priority.

In 2001, the Legislature came close to passing medical-marijuana legislation. The House and the Senate approved separate bills that year, but neither bill passed both chambers. However in 2003, a medical-marijuana bill was killed in the House by an overwhelming margin. Eight Democrats and seven Republicans who had voted for medical marijuana in 2001 voted against it in 2003.

But, McSorley said, in the last election no legislator who voted for medical marijuana in the past was defeated because of that issue. 'This is a bill of freedom and justice, not of old prejudices and hateful things people want you to believe about medical marijuana.'

Two of the most aggressive medical-marijuana opponents -- Rep. Ron Godbey, R-Cedar Crest, and Sen. Ramsay Gorham, R-Albuquerque -- are no longer in the Legislature.

A 2002 Mason-Dixon poll for The New Mexican and KOB-TV showed 72 percent of New Mexicans in favor of allowing seriously ill people to use marijuana to treat their symptoms. Only 20 percent were against it.

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