Thursday, February 08, 2007

Medical marijuana measure clears Senate again

February 8, 2007

A proposal to allow certain patients to legally use marijuana under a state-run program passed the Senate on Wednesday and headed to the House.

The proposal has the support of Gov. Bill Richardson, who has urged lawmakers to pass some measure before the annual legislative session ends March 17.

Richardson says he supports a bill "that includes proper safeguards to prevent abuse."

Senate Bill 238 creates a program run by the Department of Health in which patients with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other conditions, or in hospice care, could participate. They would need certification from their physicians.

Supporters say the drug combats nausea and relieves other symptoms of cancer and other debilitating diseases.

"Sometimes there's nothing else in life that would let you eat a bite of food," said Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, who voted for it.

The measure passed the Senate 34-7. The Senate has endorsed it the past two years, but it has failed to clear the House each time.

Supporters estimate that between 50 and 200 New Mexicans could qualify for the program.

Patients, who would be issued identification cards, would be protected from prosecution by state authorities for possessing or using the drug.

But opponents argued that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, subjecting patients who use it to possible prosecution.

"Why aren't you going to Congress and asking them to change it. ... This is blatantly pre-empted by federal law," objected Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque.

Several New Mexico doctors interviewed Wednesday by The New Mexican noted that the need for medical marijuana isn't as great as it once was.

"There is a need, (but) it's not anything like the need it was when wasting disease was part of the AIDS epidemic," said Dr. Trevor Hawkins, a Santa Fe doctor specializing in AIDS.

Hawkins said he supports the bill because medical marijuana would fill an important niche, even though it would not have widespread applications. He said it could be useful for AIDS patients who develop a multidrug resistance or are diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in a late stage and suffer from wasting and nausea.

Two oncologists said the argument for marijuana to treat nausea in cancer patients is passé because cancer treatments now have fewer side effects, and the pharmaceutical industry has produced a wide array of products that address nausea more effectively than marijuana.

"Medical marijuana is just old stuff," said Dr. David Snyder, a medical oncologist in Santa Fe. "We don't have the problems with tolerance that we had 15 years ago."

Snyder and Dr. Barbara McAneny, a medical oncologist based in Albuquerque, have given patients a synthetic version of THC, which is the key ingredient in marijuana.

"When the push to legalize marijuana first started, we only had a few anti-nausea drugs," McAneny said. "But now we have so many really, really good drugs -- with hardly anything for side effects -- that control nausea so well that I probably wouldn't use it very often if it were legal."

Also, because marijuana use is illegal under federal law, it makes doctors and others vulnerable to federal prosecution.

"I would prefer not to go to federal prison," McAneny said.