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 V.16 No.28 | July 12 - 18, 2007 

News Feature

Uneasy Pickings

Department of Health and state law enforcement duke it out over whether patients can grow their own marijuana for medical purposes

Legalizing medical marijuana in New Mexico has been anything but cut and dried.

Ultimately, the question in the state and across the country is: Who has the authority to allow the use of cannabis or condone its associated activities? The Department of Health? The State Legislature? Only the federal government?

As expected, the first two weeks of the implementation of the Compassionate Use Act have stirred up a controversy. Questions of who can grow what and what the feds might have to say about it landed in the Attorney General's office. "It's one of those cases that's done when it's done," says spokesperson Phil Sisneros. "It has priority. It's being worked on as we speak, and it's being worked on constantly."

Though the law took effect on July 2, where marijuana will be grown and distributed in New Mexico has not yet been determined. The law outlines that there will be facilities secured by the state. New Mexico is the first state to handle the question of distribution in this way.

The Department of Health issued a news release days before the law went into effect saying it would allow patients to grow their own marijuana in limited amounts. That's a problem for Jim Burleson, director of the state Sheriff's and Police Association. He says the home production of pot will surely bring extra scrutiny from the federal government. "Now they've just said, 'We don't know what to do. But in the meantime, our pot situation is, patient, grown your own.'"

Dr. Steve Jenison, medical director of the state's cannabis program, says he hasn't issued any permits for use yet, so there aren't any residents covered by the program. The debate is not affecting any patients, he says. As of press time, two completed applications had been submitted to the department. Jenison was quick to note that the marijuana production debate was not gumming up the works for those applications.

The Department of Health is only issuing temporary certifications until October, when phase two of the program goes into effect. The interim permits mean a patient is immune from state prosecution for possessing up to six ounces of marijuana. "What we have in place now is what every other state has done," says Deborah Busemeyer, communications director for the Department of Health. "The next level is to provide access for patients who can't get it on their own."

Promises of security--of the state ensuring the safety and location of the site--during the Legislative Session were part of the bill's passage, says Burleson. "None of that's happening." There's no way to be sure, he says, that patients won't be growing marijuana near schools. That's not to say the law enforcement community has no sympathy for people facing difficult illnesses. "Whether you're for marijuana or against marijuana, I think we all have to be against patients having to risk their personal safety and liberty to try to do something the state was supposed to shoulder."

October's phase two will also bring about the formation of a medical advisory committee that will oversee the approval of patients to the cannabis program. As things stand, Jenison is personally rubber-stamping each application.

Frequently asked questions about the Medical Cannabis Program

If I go through all the necessary steps to register in the state's cannabis program, is it legal?

Even if you become a cardholder, you're still not protected from the federal government. Federal law prosecutes those who possess, consume or grow cannabis, regardless of state law. Though it's unlikely the feds are going to come after a sick person using small dosages of pot for medical purposes, it's important to keep this in mind.

So what am I allowed to do?

Should you get yourself registered in the program, you will have the right to use and have cannabis under state law. You can have six ounces of usable cannabis. That’s "dried leaves and flowers, doesn't include seeds, stalks or roots," according to the Health Department brochure.

Say I'm hanging out with a registered user. Can I get in trouble?

No. You can't be prosecuted for being around someone using medical marijuana. Note, again, that this is according to state and not federal law.

Can I get my cannabis from the state?

Right now, no. The Health Department hopes to have a crop ready for patient use by October. For now, you'll have to get it off the black market. Dealers are offered no protection under the new law.

Where can I use my medical cannabis?

A better question is where can't you? You can't have or use marijuana in a public vehicle (bus, Rapid Ride, etc.), on school grounds or property, in your workplace or that of your primary caregiver, or at a public park, recreation center, youth center or other public place. It's an especially bad idea to bring pot onto any federal property (see the first question) like airports, immigration checkpoints and federal parks.

It is still illegal to: drive after using marijuana; sell or give it to someone who has not been approved by the Department of Health; and obtain or transport it outside of the state.

Will my doctor tell me how much to use?

Because the issue is in legally sticky territory, doctors might feel reluctant to make recommendations.

How do I get registered?

Fill out a form that can be found at www.nmhealth.org or call Melissa Milam at (505) 827-2321. People suffering from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries with tractable spasticity are eligible. People in hospices might also be eligible.

A doctor must recommend medical marijuana for your condition. After your application is submitted, Medical Director Steve Jenison will review it. He has 30 days to process the application, and he will call your doctor to talk over your case.

* Source: The New Mexico Department of Health

 
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