Medical marijuana bill dies at session's end

March 19, 2005

Karen Polly, Carlsbad Current-Argus

CARLSBAD — Senators from Eddy County voted against a bill that would allow access to marijuana, but it passed the Senate on a 27-11 vote. After a week of being stalled on the House floor, though, their votes were twice moot. Senate bill 795 was on the House floor since Monday, but was skipped over each day. According to lobbyist Reena Szczepanski, the bill was the last item addressed Saturday before the House adjourned, but she said Speaker Ben Lujan said the bill was too controversial and would take up too much time.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t have the votes,” Szczepanski said Saturday afternoon. “It was that somehow, we were trapped in the middle of a game.”

“It would have been nice if every one of these issues were black and white,” Sen. Vernon Asbill said of the bills presented to him in his freshman year in the state legislature.

”You hate to vote against those folks that really are getting some medical benefit out of this, but in reality, it still remains an illegal substance.”

Asbill said that other drugs that are available to sick people are sometimes illegal for people to possess without a prescription, but he said there is a process for people to follow to obtain the drugs legally. It would be better if researchers could come up with the ingredients that make marijuana beneficial to some and put it in a pill form, he said.

Sen. Carroll Leavell said he also voted against the bill.

“My thinking on that is that it sends a bad message to our young people that certain use of narcotics is acceptable. I think there’s just too much use and abuse of narcotics on the street today,” Leavell said. He said that prescription drugs are also problematic, but are controlled by prescriptive use.

“This is something we should look at, but I’m so concerned about the message that we’re sending to our youngsters,” Leavell said.

He said that cancer and other illnesses can cause discomfort, but he believes drugs that are already legal will take care of problems as well or better than marijuana. But Leavell also noted that the bill picked up support from both sides of the aisle in the Senate, and was non-partisan, “as it should be.”

Senate bill 795, named the Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act, provided for the production and dispensing of marijuana within the state of New Mexico for people suffering from debilitating conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries.

If the bill would have passed, the Department of Health would have regulated and administered the program, appointing an advisory board of eight physicians to provide additional oversight. The department would have determined an intrastate, licensed producer of the marijuana, and allowed the provider to give the marijuana to the patient free of charge.

Szczepanski, director for the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico in Santa Fe, had been lobbying for the bill during the legislative session. Szczepanski said Tuesday that New Mexico State University, University of New Mexico or the state Department of Agriculture would all be good candidates for producing the marijuana for the patients in a tightly controlled system.

“What the Department of Health can do is charge a registration fee or charge a licensing fee for the producer,” Szczepanski said. “We don’t want people to come in and make money off of these sick people.”

What makes the situation different from a normal pharmaceutical company attempting to sell a product to a patient in need, Szczepanski said, is that if there is any profit made, federal narcotics laws would be broken.

“By creating a non-commercial system, we will be within federal law,” Szczepanski said. Although she said federal agents still consider that they have the right to arrest anyone in possession of marijuana, only 18 people have ever faced prosecution for possession of marijuana that they claimed was necessary for medical reasons. Most of those 18 people were in violation of the state laws as well, Szczepanski said.

“There is no conflict with federal law the way we’ve crafted this bill. There really is no federal law issue with this bill,” Szczepanski said.

She said 10 other states have similar laws allowing doctors to recommend, yet not prescribe, marijuana. The state would approve the recommendation and determine how much cannabis could be doled out to a patient, who could then take in the product through use of a vaporizer, by smoking it or by eating it.

“We anticipate, based on the size of other states’ registries, it could be anywhere from 50 to 200 people,” Szczepanski said.

Needs for the drug vary, Szczepanski said. Some of the patients have cancer or AIDS, and are too nauseous to eat when on treatment. Treatment with marijuana allows them to recover their appetite and survive their treatment.

Other patients have muscle spasms, which marijuana prevents, Szczepanski said, noting that opiates commonly prescribed do not prevent the spasms.

“It’s a quality of life issue for some patients. They’d rather not be doped up on opiates,” Szczepanski said. “For some people, this is the only thing that helps them, so we want this to be one of the options a doctor can offer for treatment.”

A fiscal impact report on the bill states that there is no appropriation for administering the marijuana in the state’s budget, and states that a full-time administrator through the Department of Health for the project will cost about $150,000 annually.

Szczepanski said the bill had faced little opposition from state legislators, which made the fact that it was on the House calendar all week surprising.

“Really, there’s been very little opposition because of the nature of the bill. It’s a very controlled, highly regulated bill we’re trying to submit,” Szczepanski said Tuesday.

But by Thursday, Szczepanski’s optimism seemed to have faded.

“It has been skipped over two days in a row,” Szczepanski said. “There’s every indication that this bill is being held hostage.”

Szczepanski said state Rep. Daniel Silva, an Albuquerque Democrat, was to blame for the hold-up.

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Silva held up the bill because he could not get a bill that would help his constituents to build homes more cheaply in southwest Albuquerque heard in the Senate.

“I don’t want that bill heard,” Silva told the Santa Fe New Mexican regarding the medical marijuana bill. “My bill is a lot more important to my constituents.”

Silva did not return calls to the Current-Argus on Friday.

Vicky Plevin, mother of Max Plevin Gardner, who died three years ago at age 26 after a long fight with colon cancer, said it was “tragic” that New Mexico legislators would play games with a bill designed to help sick people. She said she had testified before the House Public Affairs Committee about her son’s battle with cancer.

“I’m actually appalled at what’s going on up there in Santa Fe,” Plevin, of Albuquerque, said.

Plevin said that after her son, who was near 6 feet in height, dropped to 83 pounds, she began taking doctor’s advice to get some marijuana for him.

“Every time we took him to the doctor, they’d take me aside and say, ‘Can you get him some marijuana?’” Plevin said. “Marijuana was so helpful to him, not only to help him hold down his food, but to comfort him. I don’t think families with dying family members should have to go out and look for drug dealers. I would go out and do it again. If you had a child who was suffering like that, you would, too.”

Plevin said the family had “closets full of narcotics,” listing Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin and morphine among the drugs prescribed to her son so that he could regain his appetite and comfort.

“I hear, ‘What’s the message we’re sending to our children?’ Vicodin, Percocet, morphine? They’re 20 times more addictive. But they upset his stomach. He needed the marijuana,” Plevin said. “The thing about smoking marijuana was that my son could control when he had enough, when he wasn’t nauseated anymore.”

After talking to legislators about what her son went through, Plevin said she believed that many of them understood that the issue was about medicine for sick people. But of the holdup in the House, she said, “I really think it’s tragic for them to play games with something like this.”

Erin Armstrong, a 23-year-old cancer patient and UNM student from Santa Fe, said Friday she was diagnosed with cancer almost six years ago.

“I’m currently not having to undergo treatment, because I’m stable. But I’m not under remission,” Armstrong said. “I have a lot to look forward to in the future. It is my hope that all medical treatment options would be available to me if and when I have to go through treatment again.”

On Saturday, Szczepanski said those in support of medical marijuana are already regrouping, but she said she does not know if some of them will survive another year to lobby state legislators.

“I think the House should be concerned about the devastating message that they sent to the people that need the most protection in our state, the people who are seriously fighting for their lives,” Szczepanski said. “But, we’re already making our plans for next year.”


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