ED: Check back later today to find out whether the last-ditch effort succeeded.
The New Mexico legislature's 2006 short session ends at noon Mountain Time today, and barring a last-second, long-shot maneuver, the medical marijuana bill supported by Gov. Bill Richardson (D) will die with it. The bill sailed through the state Senate with broad support during the abbreviated session, but was shunted off to a House committee largely irrelevant to the measure -- and more importantly, hostile to it -- that voted against it by a 4-3 margin. As of Wednesday evening, the only remaining hope for success this year was the faint chance that House Speaker Ben Lujan (D-Albuquerque) will exercise his prerogatives and push for a floor vote this morning.
"We're hoping we can pull off a last-minute effort and get the speaker to take this to the House floor tomorrow morning," said Melissa Milam of the Drug Policy Alliance's New Mexico office late Wednesday afternoon. "That's our last chance for this session; the session is over at noon tomorrow." DPA has been working all out to deluge House members and especially Speaker Lujan with messages urging them to get the bill to a floor vote Thursday.
Sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque), SB 258, the Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act, would allow patients suffering from illnesses like cancer or AIDS to use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms if recommended by a doctor. The bill also calls on the state to set up a system of distribution of medical marijuana, including a medical marijuana registry and ID card program. Patients and caregivers would be exempt from criminal prosecution, but would not be allowed to grow their own.
The bill sailed through the state Senate earlier this month despite opposition from local law enforcement, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and out-of-state activists like Steven Steiner of Dads and Moms Against Drugs, whose son died of an Oxycontin overdose. With no apparent sense of irony, Steiner takes money from Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, as well as other pharmaceutical companies, to lobby against allowing sick and dying patients access to medical marijuana.
But despite overcoming the objections of Steiner and his allies, the fast-tracked bill was derailed late last week when, after passing the Senate, it was sent to the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, where opponents of the measure voted to kill it on a motion by Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Farmington). Voting with Cheney to thwart the bill were Reps. Joseph Stell (D-Carlsbad), Sandra Townsend, (R-Aztec), and Don Tripp (R-Socorro).
The committee members were apparently swayed by testimony from the likes of New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area director Errol Chavez, who wrongly told them marijuana use and growth increased in California after it passed a medical mariuana law, and US Attorney David Iglesias, who warned them that even if medical marijuana is legal in a state "anyone who violates the federal Controlled Substances Act is subject to federal prosecution." He didn't bother to tell the committee that no patients have been prosecuted by the feds in any state where it is legal.
Rep. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces), an Agriculture committee member who voted for the bill, said it was detoured to the committee because the committee was stacked with conservative rural representatives who opposed it. "It's been sent here to kill it," Cervantes said, as he fruitlessly urged committee members to pass it so the entire House could vote on it.
The vote caused an emotional response from the gallery as its meaning sunk it for bill supporters. "Why are you trying to kill us?" shouted Essie DeBonet, 61, who suffers from AIDS and testified in support of the bill in the Senate.
It also brought a tight-lipped reaction from DPA's Reena Szczepanski, who had led the lobbying effort for the bill. "We're really disappointed, absolutely heartbroken," she told the Associated Press after the vote.
Sen. McSorley, the bill's sponsor, was similarly disappointed. The bill was not a move to legalize marijuana, he said, and federal laws had not resulted in patients being arrested in states where it was legalized. The bill was aimed at treating seriously ill patients, McSorley said. "They just want to live," he said. "They are seriously ill and dying. They are trying to pass this law so that they have a chance at life while they are recovering from their diseases."