House to Debate Medical Marijuana

March 03, 2003

By STEVE TERRELL | The New Mexican ,

bill to legalize marijuana as a treatment for New Mexicans suffering from debilitating medical conditions is headed for debate on the House floor. Despite a barrage of pointed questions from a longtime foe of liberalizing drug laws, the House Judiciary voted 9-1 Monday to recommend passage of House Bill 242. "What are we saying to the young people?" asked former northeastern New Mexico legislator David Salman, who testified for the bill. "We're saying that New Mexico, this Legislature, cares about your fellow citizens and (doesn't) want to see them suffer needlessly, subject to Draconian laws." The lone dissenter was Rep. Ron Godbey, R-Cedar Crest, who argued that the state would violate federal drug laws if the medical-marijuana bill becomes reality. New Mexicans shouldn't be put in the position of breaking federal law, he said. "Federal authorities could still roll in on me if I had a joint under this act." Marijuana has no proven medical value, Godbey added. Rep. Eric Youngberg, R-Corrales, disagreed with opponents' arguments that medical marijuana is the first step in legalizing marijuana for everyone. "It seems with all these amendments, (the bill) is not legalizing marijuana in any way," Youngberg said. The bill would make possession and use of marijuana legal for seriously ill patients with cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis and certain spinal injuries. A doctor would have to certify the patient was suffering from one of those conditions and the Department of Health would issue such patients identification cards. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, is titled The Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act. It is named for a Vietnam veteran with lung cancer who in 1978 persuaded the Legislature to pass a research project for medical marijuana. Salman was House majority leader at the time and sponsored that bill. Pierson later died of his disease. The research project lost its funding years ago. Unlike some medical-marijuana bills in the recent past, HB242 does not establish marijuana-distribution programs. 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. As in the past, the medical-marijuana bill is opposed by various law-enforcement organizations. Fred MacDonald, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and a spinal injury, told the committee he spends half the year in Las Cruces and half in Seattle. "I can use marijuana in Washington state, but not in New Mexico," he said. Smoking a small amount of marijuana helps alleviate his pain much better than conventional medications that make him sleepy, MacDonald said. Gov. Bill Richardson has said he would consider signing a medical-marijuana bill. At a news conference early in the session, however, he showed little enthusiasm for such legislation and said it wasn't one of his priorities. In 2001 both the House and the Senate passed separate medical-marijuana bills, which were strongly supported by then-Gov. Gary Johnson. However, neither passed both houses, which is necessary for a bill to become law. Last year a medical-marijuana bill was killed in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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