Friday, March 09, 2007

House rejects bill to legalize medical use of marijuana

Barry Massey | The Associated Press
March 9, 2007

A proposal to legalize the medical use of marijuana failed Thursday in the House, dashing hopes of advocates who had picked up the support of Gov. Bill Richardson for the measure.

The Senate previously had approved the proposal, and it would have gone to the governor had it cleared the House. Richardson had said he would sign the proposal into law.

But the House narrowly rejected the bill, with 36 voting against it and 33 supporting it.

Opponents disputed that marijuana was an effective medicine. "Medically it just really has no value. For us to approve a drug like this tells our children and tells the rest of the people in this state that we, somehow as leaders, give tacit approval to the use of this drug," said Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad and a pharmacist. "That is absolutely wrong for us to do."

He described marijuana as "the No. 1 gateway drug to abusing other drugs in our society."

The proposal would have allowed the use of marijuana for pain or other symptoms of debilitating illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, HIV-AIDS and certain spinal-cord injuries.

Supporters said marijuana could help patients who don't respond to other treatment, such as an individual who suffers from nausea because of treatments for cancer.

"If it offers one person ... the pain relief or the help they need, who are we in this body to say no?" said House Republican Whip Dan Foley of Roswell.

Under the legislation, the Health Department would establish a system for patients to obtain marijuana.

A doctor or other health-care provider would certify to the agency that someone suffers from a qualifying illness.

Patients could not grow marijuana, as in some states that have legalized medical marijuana.

The department would have been responsible for licensing marijuana providers who would produce it in "facilities within New Mexico housed on secured grounds."

Opponents of the bill said marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and patients in New Mexico could be subject to potential federal prosecution.

But Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said it was the legal responsibility of the state to regulate the practice of medicine within its boundaries. "I think these issues are better left to local practitioners and ill patients than federal bureaucrats," he said.

Initially, the bill failed on a 33-33 tie vote. However, lawmakers immediately reconsidered, and then the measure failed 33-36.

Despite the House vote, advocates vowed to continue their efforts.

"We'll try it till it gets through. We're not going to give up on the state's patient community," said Erin Armstrong, a 25-year-old cancer victim after whom the legislation was named.

"This is a matter of compassion. It's a very personal matter," said Patty Jennings, the wife of Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell.

She is battling cancer and taking morphine, which she said is much more powerful and dangerous than marijuana would be. "People who are not there don't always understand that we're asking ... to have all the options available to us."

Unless states are willing to step forward and challenge the federal government on the issue, the federal policy will never be changed, she said.

The medical marijuana bill is Senate Bill 238.