House Rejects Medical-Pot Bill

March 06, 2003

Steve Terrell, Santa Fe New Mexican ,

Although the state House of Representatives passed a medical-marijuana bill two years ago, the House overwhelmingly rejected a similar bill Thursday. A majority of Democrats and a huge majority of Republicans defeated House Bill 242 with a 46-20 vote Thursday. The House vote effectively killed the bill, since no similar measure is before the Senate. The mother of a 26-year-old cancer patient who died last year was angered by the vote. "These people who voted against it, I just pray that they never find out what they've done," said Vicki Plevin of Albuquerque, who is working as an unpaid lobbyist on an unrelated issue. She said marijuana was the only thing that eased her son's nausea from chemotherapy and stimulated his appetite. Her son, Max Gardner, suffered from the disease for two years, Plevin said. It was easy and legal to get morphine and other narcotics, she said. "But what he couldn't get - legally - was the one thing that helped him." The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, would have made possession and use of marijuana legal for seriously ill patients with cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis and certain spinal injuries. Under the bill, a doctor would have had to certify the patient was suffering from one of those conditions, and the Department of Health would have issued such patients identification cards. Unlike some medical-marijuana bills in the recent past, HB242 would not have established a state marijuana- distribution program. Patients would have to grow their own or obtain it from illegal sources. Each approved patient would be allowed to keep a three-month supply of marijuana. The reasons for the lopsided defeat were not clear. "I was surprised by the strong vote against this," former Gov. Toney Anaya, who lobbied for the bill, said immediately following the vote. "We felt good about it going in." A medical-marijuana bill in 2001 - which was part of then-Gov. Gary Johnson's drug-reform package - passed the House 35-32. Although the Senate passed a similar bill that year, neither bill made it through both houses, so it did not become law. Rep. Diane Hamilton, R-Silver City, voted for the medical-marijuana measure in 2001 but voted against Martinez's bill. The main reason for her change was that the 2001 bill would have had the state Health Department distributing marijuana to patients. Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, also changed his vote from 2001 because, he said, Martinez's bill did not give doctors as much of an oversight role as the 2001 bill did. Support for medical marijuana has dwindled on both sides of the aisle since 2001. Two years ago, House Republicans voted 18-10 against the bill, while Democrats voted 25-14 in favor. On Thursday, Republicans voted 24-3 against it, while Democrats voted 22-17 against it. During the floor debate, Martinez stressed repeatedly that the purpose of the bill was to help people suffering from serious medical conditions, not to legalize marijuana. However, opponents claimed the end result would open the door to more drug abuse. "We are legalizing marijuana by passing this bill," said Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-San Juan Pueblo. "The door is being opened to full-blown legalization." Rodella said her husband, a former state police officer, once arrested a woman with 250 pounds of marijuana - "strictly buds" - who claimed she used it to treat cancer. Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, said as a Vietnam veteran, he saw marijuana use in a negative light. "It's an addiction that starts you into harder drugs," he charged. Rep. Earlene Roberts, R-Lovington, said the bill's purpose was to show compassion to people suffering from serious medical problems. "Another group we need to show compassion to are those kids coming up who we're trying to tell, 'Just say no to drugs.' " However, Rep. Dan Foley, R-Roswell, who supported the bill, scoffed at some of the more emotional arguments against it. "I've heard about this leading to kids selling drugs on street corners. That's absolutely ludicrous," Foley said. "If people aren't smart enough to keep the level of debate to where it ought to be, they shouldn't be here." According to a statewide poll in September paid for by The New Mexican and KOB-TV, 72 percent said they would favor "legalizing marijuana use by those who have serious medical conditions, to alleviate pain and other symptoms." Only 20 percent opposed the idea, while 8 percent were undecided.

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