Senate panel OKs marijuana bill

By Deborah Baker

SANTA FE — Medical marijuana advocates have cleared the first hurdle in an uphill effort to get a bill through both houses of the Legislature during this year’s short session.
The Senate Public Affairs Committee — the first of two Senate panels assigned to review it — endorsed the measure unanimously on Tuesday.

It legalizes marijuana use by patients with debilitating illnesses, such as cancer or AIDS, whose doctors refer them to a program operated by the Department of Health.

“Having to choose between staying alive and obeying the law is a horrible, horrible decision that no one should be forced to face,” said Essie DeBonet, 61, a frail AIDS patient who said the drug helps combat the nausea induced by multiple medications.

The bill is familiar to lawmakers; it made it through the Senate and two House committees last year only to die on the floor of the House, where it fell victim to political squabbling over another issue and was never voted on.

Gov. Bill Richardson on Tuesday reiterated his backing for it and said a “substantial” portion of the public agrees.
“I think there have got to be strict standards. But for those that are suffering … I support it,” the governor said.

New Mexico had a medical marijuana program in the late 1970s in conjunction with a research project that was used by more than 250 patients before it lost its funding in 1986. Advocates have been trying to revive it for a decade, first through the Board of Pharmacy and then as of 2001 in the Legislature.

Groups representing district attorneys and police agencies opposed the bill, telling committee members it would open the state up to more criminal activity and violate federal law.

“The bottom line for us is, it’s still against federal law,” said Donald Gallegos, district attorney in the Taos-based Eighth Judicial District.

But Sen. Steve Komadina, R-Corrales, a physician, said patients would benefit from it and the bill contains enough safeguards.