Drug reformers and patient advocates started 2005 with high hopes of seeing more states jump on the medical marijuana bandwagon. They will now have to look somewhere beside Illinois and New Mexico to gain a legislative victory this year. In both states, advocates' initial optimism turned to gloom as they saw carefully crafted efforts fail in the face of political intransigence at the state house. In New Mexico, the loss was especially bitter, since the medical marijuana bill there had passed one chamber and was supported by Gov. Bill Richardson (D), but died as a result of unrelated maneuvers as the session came to a close.
In Illinois, a joint effort by the Marijuana Policy Project and the in-state group Illinois Drug Education and Legislative Reform (IDEAL), backed by an impressive array of state medical groups, came up against a concerted counter-attack by prohibitionists led by former deputy drug czar Andrea Barthwell, an Illinois resident, and was bushwhacked by a surprise blitzkrieg appearance by a heavily-guarded drug czar John Walters at a committee hearing last month. After Walters' appearance, the bill failed in committee on a 7-4 vote.
Reformers had one last chance at a new vote early this month, but on March 9, the last day to pass bills out of committee in the Illinois House, the bill lost again on a 6-5 vote. With committee Republicans voting in a bloc against the bill, two Democratic defectors, Reps. Naomi Jakobsson (Champaign) and Michelle Chavez (Cicero) provided the margin of defeat.
House Bill 407, the Illinois Medical Cannabis Act, was introduced by Chicago Democrat Rep. Larry McKeon, an HIV sufferer, and would have allowed people with debilitating diseases such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and chronic pain to legally possess up to two and a half ounces of marijuana and up to 12 cannabis plants. Patients would have had to register with the Illinois Department of Health to obtain an ID card that would exempt them from arrest and prosecution. The bill would have also allowed for designated caregivers to grow marijuana for patients who are unable to do so.
The defeat in New Mexico was even more difficult for reformers, patients, and supporters to swallow. In the Land of Enchantment, medical marijuana legislation had passed the Senate and gained the public support of Gov. Richardson, who promised to sign the bill, only to be killed by legislators who held the bill hostage for reasons unrelated to medical marijuana.
While House Speaker Ben Lujan (D-Nambe) imposed the death penalty on the bill -- blocking a last-minute attempt to hear it by saying, "This is a very controversial item. We probably need a three-hour debate" -- it was maneuvers by Reps. Dan Silva (D-Albuquerque) and Henry "Kiki" Saavedra (D-Albuquerque) that sealed the bill's fate. Silva told New Mexico reporters last week he was holding SB 795, the medical marijuana bill, hostage until Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Cisco McSorley held hearings on a Silva bill dealing with environmental impact fees on developers in the state's largest city.
McSorley (D-Albuquerque) was the sponsor of the medical marijuana bill. In his effort to force McSorley to hear his pet bill, Silva effectively derailed the popular medical marijuana bill. Rep. Saavedra, who was supposed to be championing the medical marijuana bill in the House, allied himself with Silva and against medical marijuana patients by asking that the bill he was carrying be passed over. Thus, while SB 795 sat on the House calendar awaiting a vote all of last week, the session ended with the bill poised to pass, but legislators never got the chance to vote.
Medical marijuana patients in New Mexico were less than impressed with the legislative maneuvers. "We had such strong support for this in Santa Fe; that's why it was shocking to see the garbage that went on in the House," said AIDS patient and medical marijuana user Essie DeBonet of Albuquerque. "I have never witnessed such blatant disrespect and lack of concern for patients than I saw there last week," she told DRCNet.
DeBonet has been a staunch supporter of the bill, testifying repeatedly and persuasively before legislative bodies and at press conferences. "For me, this is truly a matter of life and death," said the 60-year-old. "Before turning to medical marijuana I was down to 80 pounds and literally dying," she explained, adding that the herb counteracts the nausea-inducing side effects of her AIDS medications. "My gastrointestinal tract is most likely permanently damaged. It takes 5 ½ hours for me stomach to empty. I don't even know what it feels like to feel normal anymore," she said.
"This defeat was incredibly disappointing," said Reena Szczepanski, director of the New Mexico office of Drug Policy Alliance, which led the fight for the bill. "We had the votes and the bill would have passed, if they just heard it. For all of us -- staff, patients, and advocates -- it has been devastating to see first-hand how ugly politics can be and to see this bill held hostage over something about land development," she told DRCNet. "When it became evident that the bill was stuck, we pulled out all the stops, from the grass roots to the grass tops, but we couldn't get anyone to budge. This is really devastating."
All the more so because on this, the fourth attempt since the days of drug reforming Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, the effort finally appeared ready to bear fruit. "None of these moves that killed our bill had anything to do with sick people," said Szczepanski. "It was about this unrelated political deadlock; that's the heartbreaking part. Those politicians decided that the environmental impact bill was more important than the lives of sick and dying New Mexicans," she said.
Making lemonade out of lemons, Szczepanski found consolation in the fact that while the bill did not pass, understanding of the issue appeared broad. "Finally, people really understood this was about patients, about helping the seriously ill. This is not a defeat where people don't understand what happened. It was clear this bill had broad support, and the public understands exactly what happened. Reps. Silva and Saavedra are already being held accountable by the public and the press."
Neither the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance nor the state's medical marijuana patients are walking away from the struggle. Under New Mexico's constitution, the legislature meets in full 60-day session every two years. On off-years, the legislature has a 30-day session where only the governor can introduce bills. Szczepanski and patients will ask the governor to put his money where his mouth is, she said. "We are going to work on the governor and make him realize that not putting this bill on the agenda for the 2006 session will have a negative impact on him. We will definitely be back," she said. "We have to ensure that the bill gets on the governor's agenda. It has a really, really good chance of passing if we can only get it to a vote."
For medical marijuana patient DeBonet, the defeat in the House means she is only redoubling her efforts. "I'm calling everybody I know and telling them to call the governor's office. He is being swamped with phone calls," she said. "He says he was upset the bill wasn't voted on. If he's so upset he can call a special session or put it on the agenda for next year. But waiting another year is not a good choice. I have to spend the next year choosing whether to live or break the law."