Lawmakers change minds on marijuana

March 14, 2007

Kate Nash, Albuquerque Tribune (NM)

— Gov. Bill Richardson worked hard to change minds on a medical marijuana bill he wants to sign into law.

Apparently he didn't change a single one - according to the Democrats who did what he wanted and switched their votes from "no" last week to "yes" on Tuesday.

The five lawmakers who changed all said that calls from and talks with the governor or his staff played no role in their decisions.

"He talked to me, but he didn't actually change me - I changed on my own," said Rep. Richard Vigil, a Democrat from Ribera.

Vigil said he changed his mind after being assured by supporters that the measure would only allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

The House last week killed a similar bill 33-36. The Senate then sent another medical marijuana measure, essentially the same as last week's, to the House.

Tuesday's vote was 36-31.

Rep. Andrew Barreras said the Governor's Office asked about how he would be voting, but didn't pressure him.

"All they asked me was how I was going to vote on it and why I was going to vote," he said.

Barreras, a freshman Democrat from Tom‚, said he talked to people in his parish, his family and his constituents before deciding to vote yes this time.

"I prayed about it a lot. I spoke with my wife and children," he said. "If it's real stringent how they use it, then I think it might be OK."

Rep. Ernest Chavez, an Albuquerque Democrat, said he got an earful from constituents after he voted against the bill last week.

"They said, `You told us you were going to vote yes,'" he said. In past years he has supported the idea, but was just temporarily persuaded by opponents last week to vote no, he explained.

Chavez said he also met personally with the governor since the last vote, and told him, when asked, that he would reconsider.

Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, a Democrat from Las Cruces, said Richardson talked to her "but that wasn't the convincing factor."

"After careful consideration and talking to my family friends . . . I was convinced to go ahead and change it," she said of her vote.

Rep. Thomas Garcia said he has spoken to people from the Governor's Office on several issues recently, but couldn't recall any conversations about the medical marijuana measure specifically.

"I may have spoken to someone in his office, but I'm not sure. I don't want to commit to it because I don't know," he said.

Garcia, appointed by the governor to replace then-Rep. Hector Balderas after Balderas won election as state auditor, said the debate changed his mind.

"What came out of the debate was that first you have to get your doctor to approve it and your doctor has to get eight other people on this board to concur," said Garcia, a Democrat from Ocat‚.

The measure calls for a board to agree that a patient needs the marijuana for medical purposes.

The measure, amended by the House, now goes back to the Senate for consideration.

If the Senate passes the bill before the session ends Saturday at noon, Richardson has indicated he will sign it.

Secretary of State's Office records show Richardson's 2006 gubernatorial campaign gave at least $500 in campaign contributions to all but one of the Democrats who switched votes on the bill, although the lawmakers said that didn't play a role in their votes.

Barreras received the most, including $8,305 in contributions and in-kind donations.

He said that wasn't a factor in his decision.

"A lot of people helped me in my campaign," he said.

"Whoever helped me in my campaign, I made it clear, if you want to help me, you help me, but I'm going up there to represent my constituents."

The Secretary of State's Web site had no campaign records for Thomas Garcia, who was appointed after the election.

The House debated the measure for nearly three hours.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, a Democrat from Albuquerque, presented the bill in the Senate for sponsor Sen. Shannon Robinson, also a Democrat from the Duke City.

He said the measure was about being compassionate to people suffering the most from serious ailments, including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis.

Opponents argued that the bill would open up the door to large-scale illegal drug use.

But Maestas said that wouldn't be the case.

"This is not recreational drugs, this is medical cannabis," he said.

Rep. Larry Larra¤aga, an Albuquerque Republican who opposes the bill, offered an amendment accepted by the House that requires places that are licensed to dispense the medical marijuana to be at least 300 feet from a school.

The amendment means the bill goes back to the Senate for consideration before it can go to Richardson.

Lawmakers crossed party lines to support the measure.

"It's the most unlikely coalition in the history of this body," Maestas said.

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