Medicinal marijuana users face challenges in NM

August 12, 2007

Diana Washington Valdez, El Paso Times (NM)

The New Mexico Health Department has approved its first applications from patients whose doctors prescribed medicinal marijuana under the state's new law.

Under the new statute, approved applicants are entitled to a designated dosage of marijuana.

But there's a hitch.

It's up to the patients to figure out how and where to get the marijuana. This is because the state has not carried out the second phase of the law, due Oct. 1, which is distribution and production of cannibis.

Also, federal laws against possession of marijuana are still in effect, and even state health employees could face prosecution.

"We guarantee patients with medical marijuana will not be prosecuted under New Mexico state law, but we can't do anything about federal law," said Deborah Busemeyer, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Health Department in Santa Fe.

Three weeks ago, the state appointed eight doctors to its new Medical Advisory Committee to help come up with the rules for the Medical Cannabis Program.

The board-certified doctors also will review the state's decisions on all patient applications, as well as conduct hearings to recommend whether more medical conditions should be considered for the program.

"These highly qualified physicians will help guide the department as we continue to develop a program that will help people who suffer from debilitating conditions," said Dr. Alfredo Vigil, the state's health secretary.

The conditions that qualify for use of medicinal marijuana include cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, nerve damage of the spinal cord with "intractable spasticity (spasms)," and any terminal illness in a patient admitted to hospice care.

To obtain permission, a primary care doctor must certify that the patient has a debilitating condition and that the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

The state provides patients with ID cards that protect them against state prosecution for what is considered a three-month supply.

"The doctors must be licensed to practice in the state and the patients must live in New Mexico," Busemeyer said.

Since the program went into effect in July, nearly 50 people have applied for permission to possess medicinal marijuana.

The New Mexico Health Department received 48 applications, approved 24 and denied five. Other applications are pending or were incomplete. Patients can apply online at www.nmhealth.org.

The Drug Enforcement Administration will continue to enforce federal laws against possession of marijuana, regardless of New Mexico's new law, said Matthew Taylor, spokesman for the DEA in El Paso.

"The DEA's position is that there is no legitimate medical use for medical marijuana," Taylor said. "It is still a Schedule 1 drug, and we will enforce the controlled-substance laws as dictated by Congress."

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington sent representatives to New Mexico to lobby against the law.

The office of John P. Walters, the nation's drug czar, posts on its Web site information against the use of marijuana.

The site's "mythbusters" section also addresses potential addiction and other health problems related to cannabis.

"Scientific research has shown that marijuana use can indeed lead to dependency and addiction ... the consequences of marijuana use, including changes to the brain, (are) problems with learning, effects on mental health, and lung and respiratory damage," according to the White House Web site.

Reena Szczepanksi, director of New Mexico's Alliance for Drug Policy, which lobbied for the medicinal marijuana law, said it took seven years for the Legislature to pass it.

"The final vote in the Senate was 32-3 in favor and in the House 36-31, and, of course, the governor signed the bill into law (in April)," she said.

Szczepanksi said she believes patient testimonies, especially regarding young people with cancer, helped sway the lawmakers.

Busemeyer said the New Mexico Health Department is waiting to hear back from the state Attorney General's Office on "how to proceed with implementing the second phase of the state law -- developing a production and distribution system."

An earlier effort to decriminalize marijuana use in New Mexico, dating back to former Gov. Gary Johnson's term, failed to garner enough support despite Johnson's active support.

Under Gov. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Legislature was able to pull together enough votes to adopt the medical marijuana law.

Marijuana became illegal after the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Other countries eventually also outlawed the recreational use and possession of cannabis.

Before that, the plant was widely used as a pain reliever and to treat various ailments.

According to NORML, a national organization that advocates decriminalizing marijuana and supports medical marijuana laws, 12 other states also permit medicinal uses of cannabis: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Most of these states allow patients to grow their own, or in some cases, permit for small-scale vendors to provide up to four patients with marijuana.

San Francisco has informal medicinal marijuana smoking parlors, but police are cracking down on them because of suspicions they are used for recreational instead of medical purposes.

According to the Associated Press, federal agents raided 10 medicinal marijuana clinics in Los Angeles two weeks ago, and arrested the owners and managers, but not the patients.

Under its new law, New Mexico has the additional charge of developing a production and distribution system for the marijuana, but state Attorney General Gary King's office warned health officials in an Aug. 6 letter that his staff cannot protect state health employees if the federal government goes after them.

A letter from King to health officials also reminded them that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that the production and distribution of marijuana for medical use is illegal.

Theoretically, the state could contract with local growers or other suppliers.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@elpasotimes.com; 546-6140.




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