Agonizing wait over legalizing marijuana

March 17, 2005

Shea Andersen, Albuquerque Tribune

SANTA FE - For three days this week, a bill to legalize medical use of marijuana has appeared on the House schedule for a full floor vote - the final step to get it to the governor's desk.

Each day, Essie Debonet sat in the chamber's public gallery and watched, trying not to throw up, while representatives wend their way through ponderous debates on other issues.

'I'm angry,' Debonet said Thursday, 'and I'm tired.'

Debonet has AIDS. She is 60 years old and on as many as four medications a day to keep her alive.

Each pill twists her digestive system in new and awful ways.

'I'm nauseous 24-7,' she said. 'I don't remember what it feels like to not be nauseous.'

Debonet weighs 88 pounds. Her system is so ragged she can feel every little capsule she takes go down her throat. At her size, she suspects, they may even be visible.

She is hoping, she said, to see New Mexico make history and legalize the use of marijuana, something she is already doing illegally to survive. It helps her keep food down.

'Medical marijuana for me is a matter of severe life and death,' she said.

She was joined, two of the three days she came up from Albuquerque, by Erin Armstrong, who at 23 is about to celebrate the six-year anniversary of her first surgery for thyroid cancer.

Armstrong, like Debonet, has traveled from Albuquerque to talk with lawmakers about medical marijuana. She does so in a voice far too rough for a woman her age, a result of her surgery.

The two of them drive up through the snow. They take up seats in the House gallery. And they wait.

And wait. Eight hours on Monday. Five hours on Tuesday. Six hours on Wednesday.

'That, I can tell you, is exhaustion personified,' Debonet said.

Both hope that a measure sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat, will do what it did in the Senate and pass. Gov. Bill Richardson has said he will sign the measure if it gets to him.

That's 'if.'

So far, the House has not voted on the measure.

A persistent Roundhouse rumor has contended that the bill is being held up because Rep. Dan Silva, an Albuquerque Democrat, has been unable to get his bill restricting Albuquerque's impact fees heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee that McSorley leads.

Asked about that today, Silva said, 'That might have something to do with it,' and then laughed.

'It's shameful,' Debonet said. 'They play with my life like this.'

Armstrong thinks a moment about the delays and clears her throat.

'It's just very difficult for people who are sick to sit through the process,' said Armstrong, whose cancer is in remission, though she fears it won't last.

On Thursday, Richardson renewed his call for the measure to make it to his desk.

'I believe that there are enough safeguards in the bill,' he said. 'This is for those that are in extreme pain and danger. I would be prepared to sign it and urge lawmakers to pass it.'

McSorley's bill passed the Senate with dissenters worrying aloud that New Mexico would run afoul of federal drug laws if it sanctioned marijuana smoking.

Also, Sen. Carroll Leavell, a Jal Republican, said legalizing pot would send the wrong message to kids.

New Mexico would be the 11th state to allow medical use of marijuana if McSorley's bill becomes law.

Under the bill, the state Health Department would license producers to provide marijuana, which would be grown in secure facilities. Patients whose doctors recommended it would apply to the department and, if approved by a review board of physicians, would be registered to possess the drug.

But as its path to passage lengthens, Debonet has gone home. She is resting. She will monitor the debate from afar.

'I'm hanging on to some shreds of hope,' she said. 'They can't be that cruel and inhumane.'

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