Pot now legal for serious illness in New Mexico

April 02, 2007

Deborah Baker, Associated Press

SANTA FE — Nearly three decades after medical marijuana first was approved in New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday signed a law authorizing the state Department of Health to give the drug to some seriously ill patients.

New Mexico became the 12th state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

Richardson said the new law provides "a humane option for New Mexicans living with cancer, HIV and other serious medical conditions."

The second-term governor is seeking the 2008 Democratic nomination, and Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico said he is the first presidential candidate to sign medical marijuana into law.

"I hope that other elected officials take note: Americans will stand behind those that believe in compassion and mercy for our most vulnerable, our sick and dying patients struggling for relief," said Reena Szczepanski, a lobbyist for the organization.

The law is named in part after Lynn Pierson, a Vietnam veteran who was dying of lung cancer when he lobbied lawmakers for a medical marijuana bill, linked to a research program, that was passed in 1978.

Pierson didn't live long enough to use the progam, which provided marijuana to cancer patients to relieve the nausea of chemotherapy.

It lost its funding in 1986 and became defunct.

Richardson's signing of the bill, which takes effect July 1, drew immediate criticism from White House drug czar John Walters, who had asked the governor not to sign it.

Walters in an interview called it "disappointing" and "irresponsible."

He said it would worsen New Mexico's problem of illegal drug use, undermine the anti-drug message to youngsters and result in the control problems like those California has experienced.

"This is a triumph of politics over science," he said, suggesting Richardson sought "to curry the favor of wealthy donors who are marijuana legalization advocates."

New Mexico Republicans contend Richardson supported the bill — and helped push it through — because of contributions to his re-election campaign last year: $25,000 from billionaire philanthropist George Soros and $25,000 from the Drug Policy Alliance Network.

Critics also argue that marijuana is illegal under federal law and New Mexico users of the drug could be opening themselves to federal prosecution.

New Mexico's health department will set up the program, which will be overseen by an eight-member board of physicians.

Patients with certification from their doctors could apply to the state agency, which would issue identification cards.

The health department must obtain the marijuana from production facilities in the state "housed on secure grounds and operated by licensed producers." Patients could not grow their own.

"So we have the proper safeguards," Richardson said at a news conference.

The department is supposed to issue rules for the program in the fall.

The governor estimated 200 people could use the program.

"It's a humane piece of legislation. It does not mean I support legalizing marijuana," Richardson said. "It means that we are alleviating suffering ... and I must tell you, I was overcome by the personal stories of pain and the personal appeals I got."

The governor said he had heard from law enforcement agencies unhappy with the new law, and he acknowledged it may be unpopular with others as well.

"So be it," he said.

 

 



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