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Medical marijuana clears Senate

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    Posted: 03 February 2006 at 10:46
By an overwhelming majority , the state Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow sufferers of serious medical conditions to smoke marijuana without fear of prosecution.

Strong majorities of both political parties contributed to the 34-6 passage of SB258, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque .

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Essie DeBonet, an Albuquerque AIDS sufferer who has lobbied for the bill the past two sessions. “The Senate showed their concerns for people.”

Although an assistant to the White House drug czar flew to New Mexico to testify against the bill last week, 12 of the Senate’s 18 Republicans voted for it.

With two of the Senate’s most socially conservative senators — Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque ; and Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington — voting for the first time in favor of a medical-marijuana bill, it might seem that the political landscape has shifted for this issue.

However, to become law, the bill first must make it through the House, where last year’s bill died as a “hostage” in political wrangling over an unrelated bill. Most involved in the issue agree the House won’t be as easy as the Senate — especially during the last half of a short session.

Even before the bill passed the Senate, advocates began working the House.

“We had a great meeting last week with (House Speaker) Ben Luján ,” said Reena Szczepanski — director of the state chapter of The Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug-law reform group that has been pushing the proposed bill.

But she said the speaker made no promises. “It’s definitely in his court now.”

In an interview Tuesday, Luján said he is disappointed that the medical-marijuana bill was one of the first Senate bills passed this year. “I would have hoped that the first bills passed would have addressed issues that are more at the forefront of what the general public really wants,” he said.

But, Luján said, “I’m not going to derail this bill or attempt to keep it from being heard.”

He said he expects to give the bill only two committee assignments — House Consumer and Public Affairs and House Judiciary — the same two that heard last year’s bill.

Last year, the measure zipped through Consumer and Public Affairs unanimously and got an 8-1 favorable vote in Judiciary.

Although last year’s bill was on the House floor schedule for several days, it never got heard. Rep. Dan Silva, DAlbuquerque , was blunt about the fact that he had worked behind the scenes to delay action on the medical-marijuana bill.

Silva said his actions were caused by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by medical-marijuana sponsor McSorley , not hearing a bill dealing with an Albuquerque development that Silva sponsored.

On Tuesday, Silva said he had no plans to hold up the latest medical-marijuana bill.

Gov. Bill Richardson, who put the bill on his legislative call, has said he’d sign a medical-marijuana bill. Eric Witt, one of the governor’s legislative liaisons, said Tuesday that Richardson would sign the bill if he was convinced it was not in direct conflict with federal law and it protected state agencies involved in the program.

Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque , has argued that the bill conflicts with federal law and is “throwing down the gauntlet” for a court challenge.

Cravens told his colleagues Tuesday that even though he voted against SB258 in the Judiciary Committee last week, he’d had “a change of heart.”

“I commend the sponsor,” he said. “The way he’s gone about it added credibility to the bill.”

Sharer told a reporter, “This was a hard one for me. I was predisposed to vote against it.” But Sharer said he’s convinced that the bill contains enough safeguards against abuse. “This made me think this is a medical bill, not a marijuana bill.”

Some senators credited Erin Armstrong, the 24-year-old daughter of state Aging and Long-Term Services secretary Debbie Armstrong, for convincing them to back the bill. Erin Armstrong has struggled with thyroid cancer.

The Senate amended the title of the bill — originally named for Lynn Pierson, a cancer patient who was instrumental in getting the Legislature to pass a medicalmarijuana research program in 1978 — to include Erin Armstrong’s name.

Under the bill, the state Health Department would establish regulations by which patients — certified by a physician to be suffering specific medical conditions — could obtain marijuana. The department would license marijuana providers or marijuana-growing facilities.

Patients would be allowed to possess a three-month supply of the drug. Among the possible qualifying illnesses that would make a patient eligible for marijuana are cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, HIV-AIDS and certain spinal-cord injuries. Those found guilty of fraudulently obtaining marijuana through the state program could be found guilty of a petty misdemeanor on top of whatever drug charges they faced. McSorley said patients would not be immune from federal prosecution.

But he said that so far the federal government hasn’t prosecuted any patients in the medical-marijuana programs in the 11 states that have such laws.

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