House Committee Shelves Medical Marijuana Bill

February 10, 2006

Heather Clark, Associated Press

A House panel has shelved a Senate-passed bill that would have allowed patients suffering from illnesses like cancer or AIDS to use marijuana prescribed by a doctor to alleviate their pain.
    With the end of the legislative session set for Thursday, the move likely kills the bill for this session.
    The Agriculture and Water Resources Committee tabled the measure on a 4-3 vote Saturday.

    "Why are you trying to kill us?'' Essie DeBonet, 61, of Albuquerque shouted at committee members as the vote sank in after an emotional hearing on the proposal.
    DeBonet said she has suffered from AIDS for 18 years and needs marijuana to control the pain without giving her nausea that prevents her from eating.
    Reena Szczepanski of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which lobbied for the bill, said supporters will try to regroup and get the committee to reconsider the measure before the session ends.
    "We're really disappointed, absolutely heartbroken,'' she said.
    The bill would have created a program in the Health Department where doctors could have referred patients with debilitating medical conditions. Patients who were certified under the program would be able to possess marijuana without risk of prosecution by state authorities, but they could not grow it.
    The committee's decision was applauded by law enforcement officers who said the proposal would cause legal problems because it conflicted with federal law and would increase illegal marijuana use and growth in the state.
    Errol Chavez, director of the New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Las Cruces, told the committee that abuse and growth of marijuana increased in California after a medical marijuana law went into effect.
    The committee's vote "prevents a threat from coming to the state of New Mexico, the threat of abuse of marijuana,'' he said after the meeting.
    In a Feb. 8 letter circulated to the committee, U.S. Attorney David Iglesias wrote that even if the state made medical marijuana use legal, "anyone who violates the (federal) Controlled Substances Act is subject to federal prosecution.''
    Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that in states that have medical marijuana laws, no patients have been prosecuted by federal authorities. Those states include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
    He said the bill also is not a move to legalize all marijuana use in New Mexico. It is about helping an estimated 250 severely ill patients, he said.
    Many patients suffer severe nausea from prescription pain medications, radiation and chemotherapy, leading to loss of appetite and further weakening them, he said.
    "They just want to live,'' McSorley said. "They are seriously ill and dying. They are trying to pass this law so that they have a chance at life while they are recovering from their diseases.''
    McSorley was joined by Sen. Steve Komadina, R-Corrales, and a doctor, who said after researching medical marijuana laws in other states and the people who were affected by them, he became convinced that New Mexico's bill provided legal protections so that marijuana would not be abused.
    "This is the tightest bill in the world,'' he said.
    But committee members questioned the bill's vagueness. Rep. Ray Begaye, D-Shiprock, who voted against tabling the measure, said the bill failed to address how marijuana would be manufactured and distributed across the state and how patients would be regulated while they are taking medical marijuana.
    Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who also voted against tabling the bill, said it was sent to the committee because its members are from rural New Mexico and considered conservative.
    "It's been sent here to kill it,'' Cervantes said and urged committee members to send it to the House.
    Among supporters speaking to the committee was Erin Armstrong, who was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago at age 17. She said she has spent years of her life controlled by nausea from her treatments, unable to attend college and making it difficult to have friends or hold down a job.
    "We are not people who seek to abuse drugs,'' she told the committee. "We're seeking a legitimate avenue to gain medical relief and medical advice from our doctors. None of us should have to decide if keeping down this next meal is worth the chance of getting arrested.''
    Her mother, Debbie Armstrong, secretary for the Aging and Long-term Services Department, told the committee that as a mother, she is concerned about illegal drug use, but feels children can understand the difference between a medical need and inappropriate use.
    "There's no mixed message at my house with my children about this issue,'' she said.

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