Medical Marijuana in New Mexico
If a bill moving through the current 30-day Legislative Session passes, the state's sick and dying may be legally smoking up by this summer
By Jessica Cassyle Carr
"I've got AIDS. I'm nauseous 24/7; my life is degrees of nausea. I'm fighting wasting,” said Essie Debonet, a 61-year-old, 95-pound patient activist, adding that marijuana is one of the only things that helps to quell her chronic nausea due to AIDS medications. “It almost pushes me to eat.”
Debonet has been working to get medical marijuana legalized in New Mexico for a year and a half, a goal that may be realized this Legislative Session. Through marijuana's ability to stop nausea and motivate people to eat, she said the drug saves lives, and allows people to live more comfortably and die with dignity, which is also the consensus among many of the state's policy makers, activists and citizens.
This Legislative Session, the issue of legalizing medical marijuana in the state will likely be decided with SB258. There are a number of opponents to the bill's passage, but, like Debonet, also many supporters.
Fred MacDonald, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and a spinal injury he received while serving in the U.S. Navy, said that, with the use of medical marijuana, which he began using under a doctor's prescription in 1998 while living in Seattle, over the course of two-and-a-half years he went from being confined to a wheelchair to walking.
“Just imagine if it was your child who had cancer or immune deficiency syndrome, where the medication they were taking would not allow them to even function as a person,” Macdonald said, adding that marijuana allows patients to eat, which increases the chances of improving the immune system. “This is a medication just like any other medication. It's not [about] patients standing around smoking joints.”
Marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for nearly 5,000 years and was widely used throughout the world during the 19th century. In the U.S., it was recognized as a pharmacological agent until 1942, five years after it was banned in Congress with the U.S. Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Numerous studies conducted later in the 20th century have shown marijuana to be effective in relieving pain and nausea, among other things.
In the '70s, Marinol was put on the market (where it remains today), a prescriptive drug that includes the active ingredient found in marijuana and is intended to help treat nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and AIDS. However, it has been found to be ineffectual for patients with nausea and is more expensive than the marijuana plant itself.
“All of us have [known] somebody who's been seriously ill—a family member, a close friend—and I think that we need to remember that that's what this is about,” said Reena Szczepanski, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico. “This isn't about old stereotypes and misinformation about marijuana, this is about something that helps people and something they deserve to have legal access to.” Szczepanski said the organization wants patients to be protected under New Mexico law, and show that as a state we care about our sick and dying.
Last year, a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana passed in the State Senate 29-11, but was held up in the House by a political move known as “logrolling,” where legislators trade votes. According to Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored last year's medical marijuana bill, because he would not vote for Rep. Daniel Silva's, D-Albuquerque, impact fees bill, Silva in turn would not vote for McSorley's bill, subsequently killing both bills.
This year, McSorley is sponsoring a similar bill, which was also introduced last year by Sen. Steve Komadina, R-Sandoval. The Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act (SB258) could make New Mexico one of a dozen states to legalize medical marijuana. "All of the studies we've done have shown overwhelming support for the bill, above 70-percent support" said McSorley. “We don't claim that medical marijuana will cure anybody of anything. What it does is treat the symptoms caused by the drugs that people take to cure themselves.” McSorley also pointed out that doctors can currently prescribe much more potent drugs, such as the opiate morphine.
Under the new law, a physician could recommend medical marijuana for patients diagnosed with cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, nervous tissue/spinal cord injury, epilepsy, or any other condition or disease approved by an advisory board of eight physicians appointed by the state Board of Health. The patient would then apply to a marijuana grower who's licensed and regulated by New Mexico, who would then provide necessary amounts of the drug. Unlike policies in other states such as California, the bill would not allow anyone other than state agencies and licensed commercial facilities to grow marijuana, a difference from last year's bill, which would have allowed patients and caretakers to grow the plant themselves. The bill will, however, allow for the use of applications which deliver cannabis in other ways, such as inhalers (which are used in other countries and are currently under investigation by the FDA), as well as gels and creams for topical application.
“We're not talking about smoking marijuana, we're talking about using cannabis for medicinal reasons delivered through a variety of ways,” said Komadina, a practicing OB/GYN, president of the State Medical Society, faculty member of UNM's medical school and author of the bill. “I'm mostly concerned with us passing a law that's safe, and that does not send mixed messages.”
However, some opponents of the bill, which include law enforcement agents, state district attorneys and some members of the Legislature, say the new law would do just that. Sen. Carroll H. Leavell, R-Lea and Eddy, said drug problems are rampant in the southeastern part of the state. “It sends the wrong message to the young people of our state. I can tell you that there are very few families in the state of New Mexico that have not been affected in some way by illegal drug use, and I think this will just add to the possibility of additional drug use.”
Leavell said there are sufficient legal medications available to deal with patients' pain, adding that the state should not pass laws that are against federal statutes. This is the same reason why the State District Attorneys Association is unified in opposition to the bill. One state D.A., Lem Martinez, said because of the Federal Supremacy Clause, both manufactures and patients could be prosecuted for the production and use of medical marijuana. “We do not want to give the impression to New Mexico's sick people, much less regular people, that because it's not against state law, that they can use this drug with impunity.” Martinez said people need to work on this issue at the federal level. However, to date none of the approximate 100,000 patients using marijuana in states where it's legal have been prosecuted.
If the bill does pass during this Legislative Session, which seems likely, it has the support of Gov. Bill Richardson. The governor said he initially didn't want to put the bill on the call, preferring to wait until next year's 60-day session, but upon holding office hours he spoke with numerous patients who convinced him that the issue was time sensitive. Richardson said despite threats, the 11 other states which have legalized medical marijuana have not received cuts in federal funding, and added that he believes the federal government is pleased with other initiatives he's taken on substance abuse, which bring a favorable light to the state in terms of drug control. Richardson said that when it comes down to it, the issue is a matter of states' rights. “The federal government won't act,” he said. "There are good safeguards; it's for medicinal purposes, for helping people who want another chance at easing their pain."
According to McSorley, if the bill passes, it could go into effect as early as July. It is estimated that the policy would benefit approximately 200 people in the state.
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