Less than a week after the state House voted to kill medical marijuana legislation in the Land of Enchantment, it reversed itself, opening the door to New Mexico's becoming the 12th state to legalize the medicinal use of the plant. With minor changes approved by the state Senate this week, the only thing lacking is the signature of Gov. Bill Richardson (D). That appears to be only a formality, given Richardson's strong push to get bill to his desk.
This was the third effort to get medical marijuana through the state legislature. In two previous sessions, legislation passed the Senate, but never got to a floor vote in the House, for reasons having as much to do with legislative politics as with the virtues or liabilities of medical marijuana.
At the end of last week, it appeared that medical marijuana was again doomed in New Mexico after a House floor vote resulted in a 36-33 vote to kill it. But thanks to deft maneuvering by medical marijuana supporters and to Gov. Richardson leaning on the legislature, the bill came back from the dead this week.
"There was actually another bill introduced in the Senate, and it was on the Senate floor two days after the first bill failed, so we worked with Sen. Robinson, the bill's sponsor, to adjust the content of his bill so it was similar to the first bill, which had already passed the Senate," explained Szczepanski. "The governor also worked really hard to swing some votes in the House, a lot of representatives got a lot of calls from the public, and enough of them changed their votes to pass this," she told Drug War Chronicle.
"This bill will provide much-needed relief for New Mexicans suffering from debilitating diseases while including the proper safeguards to prevent abuse," Richardson said in a written statement. "I am pleased that the legislature did the right thing, reconsidered this important bill and supported a humane option for New Mexicans who endure some of the most painful diseases imaginable."
The bill will allow patients to use marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, certain spinal-cord injuries, epilepsy, HIV, AIDS, hospice care and other uses approved by the state Department of Health. Unlike other medical marijuana states, patients will not be able to grow their own medicine. Instead, the state Department of Health will be required to set up a system to license providers and will distribute the marijuana to qualified patients itself. According to the bill, that system must be in place by October 1.
"When Gov. Richardson signs the bill, he will be sending a strong message that states can and should exercise their right to do what is in the best interest of their citizens free from intrusion from the federal government," said DPA's Szczepanski. "Governor Richardson's unwavering support for the medical marijuana bill is a courageous step in ensuring that the will of the people of New Mexico has been validated and for that we are grateful."
"We're just thrilled; it's been a long, hard battle," said cancer patient Erin Armstrong, one of two patients for whom the bill is named. "I always knew it would happen; it just took a huge amount of work and patience. We're thrilled to have the support of the governor and the majority of the legislature and for New Mexico to become the 12th medical marijuana state. This is a huge victory," she told Drug War Chronicle.
Not everyone was thrilled. Rep. John Heaton (D-Carlsbad), a pharmacist who had railed against medical marijuana last week, was at it again this week, arguing that marijuana weakened the immune system. "To move in this direction just makes no sense at all," he spluttered.
Rep. James Strickler (R-Farmington) dragged out the old "what about the kids?" routine. "You can't make a bill ironclad enough when it comes to our children," he protested.
And Rep. Manuel Herrera (D-Bayard), a cancer survivor, would apparently rather die than smoke pot. "I've survived this cancer five times, and I intend to fight it with whatever is available except marijuana," he vowed.
The state Republican Party also got into the fray with a Tuesday statement made available to the Chronicle that accused Richardson of supporting the bill because he got donations from George Soros and the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "Gov. Richardson has two very big reasons why he is eager for passage of this legislation -- though it was previously rejected last week by the House," the statement reads. "The first reason is a $25,000 donation by political activist George Soros to Richardson's reelection campaign on July 24, 2006. The second reason is a $25,000 donation made to Richardson's reelection campaign on July 20, 2006 by the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a subsidiary of the Drug Policy Alliance. These organizations are heavily funded by radical political activist George Soros. Is $50,000 enough to buy drug policy in New Mexico?" the Republicans asked. "After all, illegal drug use in New Mexico is already destroying thousands of lives a year. Methamphetamine use has reached epidemic proportions across New Mexico, and the governor is advocating for 'medicalized' recreational marijuana use."
But despite the GOP jab, Richardson, who will shortly become the first presidential candidate to sign a medical marijuana bill into law, has been a supporter of the issue for at least five years -- as was the previous governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, a Republican. And the bill passed has nothing to do with "medicalized" recreational use, but sets up a strict program with many safeguards for patients and the public.
Now, it will be up to the Department of Health to get a program up and running by October. It is not yet clear what that program will look like, said DPA's Szczepanski.
"There have been lots of possibilities discussed, and now everyone will be sitting down to examine what the best options are," she said. "We'll be leaning on the experience of other states -- what's worked and what hasn't. The law will go into effect July 1, and between then and October 1, patients will be able to get temporary registration cards, but getting the program up and running will take some time."
Still, said Szczepanski, there is plenty to celebrate now. "For the past three years, we've been so close, just a hair's breadth away, and it's been a real heartbreaker. It was a matter of persevering, helping patients and family members come to the capitol and talking to legislators one on one," she said. "I think that the truth finally prevailed; legislators couldn't continue to deny the patients after talking to them. But Gov. Richardson was also such a champion of this issue. He really worked this bill, and we owe the turnaround this week to him."
Provided Richardson signs the bill -- and there is no reason to suppose he will not -- New Mexico will join Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington as a state that has approved the medicinal use of marijuana. With medical marijuana bills moving in their respective state capitols, chances are increasingly good that at least two more states, Illinois and Minnesota, will join the club this year.