Medical-marijuana bill finds support, moves forward

January 24, 2006

Steve Terrell, The New Mexican

A bill that would legalize medical marijuana cleared its first hurdle Tuesday, getting a unanimous, bipartisan “do-pass” recommendation from the Senate Public Affairs Committee. Senate Bill 258 would allow patients with debilitating medical conditions, including cancer and AIDS, to use marijuana to treat their symptoms — and in some cases the side effects of treatment for those diseases.

The state Department of Health would administer a program under which doctors would be allowed to recommend marijuana for their patients. The marijuana used in the program would be grown in a secure facility by the state or a private agency contracting with the state.

The committee heard from patients who say medical marijuana would ease their suffering. Fred McDonald, 45, who has multiple sclerosis, said he splits his time between New Mexico and Washington state. “My doctors in Washington treat me with medical marijuana,” he said. “But when I come here, it’s illegal.”

Essie DeBonet, 61, an AIDS sufferer who has lobbied two years for a medicalmarijuana bill, said: “Nobody should have to choose between breaking the law and staying alive.”

Also asking the committee to recommend the bill was cancer patient Erin Armstrong, the 24-year-old daughter of state Aging and Long-Term Services secretary Debbie Armstrong.

Debbie Armstrong was one of three of Gov. Bill Richardson’s cabinet members at the committee hearing.

Human Services Secretary Pam Hyde told the committee, “It’s time we sent a message to the federal government.”

Health Secretary Michelle Grisham-Lujan told the panel that it would not be difficult to set up a program in her department to oversee medical marijuana.

But one Richardson cabinet secretary not at the hearing was state Public Safety Secretary John Denko. During his tenure as Santa Fe police chief, Denko had testified in legislative hearings against previous medical-marijuana bills.

The only opponents to testify Tuesday were from the law-enforcement community .

Taos District Attorney Donald Gallegos predicted the bill would run afoul of federal law if the Legislature passes it.

But state Sen. Steve Komadina, R-Corrales , who is a doctor, said the bill has tight safeguards. He said the bill provides stricter controls on marijuana than current law does on much stronger and addictive drugs such as codeine and OxyContin.

The bill goes on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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