Medical Marijuana Proposal Back Before Legislature

February 06, 2005

Barry Massey, Associated Press, Albuquerque Journal

Erin Armstrong's soft voice trembles as she recounts her six-year fight against cancer and asks lawmakers to legalize the medical use of marijuana. 'This isn't a drug issue at all. This is a patients' rights issue,' said Armstrong, who suffers from nausea because of treatments for the cancer she's battled since she was 17. 

'I am here on behalf of myself and all other suffering patients who should never have to choose whether or not keeping down the next meal is worth getting arrested,' said Armstrong, who grew up in Santa Fe but lives in Albuquerque. 

A proposal in the Legislature would allow the use of marijuana for pain or other symptoms of debilitating illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, HIV-AIDS and certain spinal cord injuries. 

'It's so hard to manage chronic nausea. It's so hard to gain the courage to leave your home, to leave the proximity of a restroom. It's hard to go to school. It's hard to go to work,' Armstrong said Monday at a news conference at which the legislation was announced. 

She hasn't tried marijuana for her nausea. For now, she's taking a prescription drug that costs more than $3,000 a month. She's still covered by her parents' health insurance but said other patients aren't so lucky. 

Essie DeBonet, 60, of Albuquerque, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 and constantly suffers from nausea. 

'I had to carry what I called a vomit bucket every place I went because I never knew when it was going to hit me and I was going to heave my guts out,' she said. 

New Mexico lawmakers have debated medical marijuana before. 

Former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson supported the proposal as part of a package of drug law changes. In 2001, the House and Senate approved separate bills to permit the medical use of marijuana but never agreed on the same version of the proposal. In 2003, however, the House overwhelmingly rejected a medical marijuana measure. 

A sponsor of this year's measure, Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers should no longer fear any political fallout from voting for medical marijuana. 

'Not one senator, not one representative lost their seat because of this issue,' said McSorley. 'This is a bill of freedom and justice, not of old prejudices and hateful things people want you to believe about medical marijuana.' 

Ten states allow the use of marijuana as medicine: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont and Washington. Arizona has a law permitting marijuana prescriptions but no active program. 

In most states, patients must grow their own marijuana or have a designated caregiver do it for them. That would not be allowed by the New Mexico proposal. 

    Under the legislation: 

      —   The state Health Department would license producers to provide the marijuana. The only cost to patients would be an annual registration fee set by the agency. 

      —   A doctor must recommend the use of marijuana for a patient and the individual would apply to the department. A review board of doctors would consider each application. If approved by the board, patients would be registered by the state to possess enough marijuana to treat their illnesses. 
District attorneys and law enforcement groups opposed the 2003 legislation. 
Lemuel Martinez, president of the New Mexico District Attorneys' Association, said no formal vote has been taken by the group but he expects continued opposition because a user of medical marijuana   —   even if allowed in New Mexico   —   could be subject to federal drug charges. 
The legislation also raises legal questions, he said, because it calls for a state agency to license marijuana producers. 
'I believe it would probably run afoul of federal law,' Martinez, the district attorney in Valencia, Cibola and part of Sandoval counties, said in a telephone interview. 
A case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether the federal government can prosecute sick people who use marijuana with state approval and the permission of their doctors.

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