Medical marijuana patients face difficult task of finding drug

September 03, 2007

Sue Vorenberg, Albuquerque Tribune (NM)

At the center of the labyrinth of issues around medical marijuana is a snarled garden of Catch-22.

Certified patients in New Mexico can use it - but they have no way to legally get it.

If they have a supply but end up in the hospital, nurses can't administer the drug because it's against the law.

Earlier this year, the Legislature told the Department of Health to find a way to produce and distribute medical marijuana - but to do so would subject its employees to federal prosecution.

Gov. Bill Richardson told Attorney General Gary King to support the Department of Health, but to do so would subject him to removal from office under state law.

"It's a fairly complex situation," King said.

Since the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act was signed in April, the issues have put the Attorney General's Office and the Health Department in a bind, said Alfredo Vigil, secretary of the Department of Health.

"We're going to continue the certification process for patients as long as possible, but the whole distribution system - which was a way we thought we could break new ground - has turned out to be a total impossibility," Vigil said.

So far, about 30 people have been certified to use medical marijuana in New Mexico, and applications are starting to slow down, Vigil said.

"We're ending up talking about a pretty small group of people," Vigil said.

Personally, King said he thinks the decision on use of medical marijuana should be left to doctors and patients, but legally he can't support state efforts to facilitate that process, he said.

"I can be removed from office if I act as a defense attorney for anyone," King said.

Meanwhile, patients say they're glad the state has legalized their possession of marijuana for medical purposes, but the legal wrangling has left them wondering how to overcome the Catch-22 of getting the drug, said Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico.

"It's a very difficult situation right now," Szczepanski said. "The Legislature wanted people to not have to go to drug dealers or grow their own."

A state-sponsored distribution system would relieve seriously sick and dying patients from another hassle, Szczepanski said.

"It's difficult to grow, difficult to find," Szczepanski said. "Patients don't want to have to think, `Oh my gosh, I have to ask my grandchild where to go and find marijuana.' "

Last week, the governor directed the Health Department to continue planning for a distribution system, even with all the legal headaches.

But Vigil said he's not sure the problem will be solved unless the federal government takes action.

"The only thing that could happen would be that Congress could consider changing federal law in some shape or form to allow a medical marijuana production process," Vigil said.

Richardson wrote a letter to President Bush last week asking him to exempt the physicians and officials in states that legalize medical marijuana from federal prosecution.

"At a time when the scourge of meth is coming across the border, and cocaine and heroin use continues to ravage our communities, the federal government should be cracking down on real criminals - not people who are trying to help those in pain," Richardson said in the letter.

But that's not likely in the near future, King said.

"There seems to be very little clinical evidence that there's therapeutic utility in smoking marijuana," King said. "I would think the medical debate would need to be sharpened up before policy-makers can come up with new policy."

For law enforcement, it's good news that the law has stopped the state from producing marijuana. The general concern is that legalizing medical marijuana is just a way for activists to begin the process of legalizing the substance, said Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White.

"I've never supported medical marijuana," White said. "I'm very sympathetic to the patients - I watched my father die of cancer, and it's the most difficult thing in the world - but I don't think you have to smoke marijuana to gain the comfort and relief that's provided by the THC."

But Szczepanski said the issue of medical marijuana is not about overall legalization - in the end it comes down to providing relief for a handful of patients who see the drug as their only option.

"The reason I was passionate about working on the medical marijuana bill was seeing the patients with these heartbreaking stories of being impacted by pain, nausea," Szczepanski said. "Really, it's all about helping them."



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