Thursday, January 6, 2011

Susana: Repealing Medical Marijuana Law Not a Priority

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 7, 2011

Although she still opposes the idea of allowing medical use of marijuana, Gov. Susana Martinez said Thursday that repealing the state’s medical cannabis program will not be a priority for her in the upcoming legislative session.

“I oppose medical marijuana,” Martinez said at a news conference, repeating a campaign statement that the program puts state employees in the position of violating federal drug laws.

But when asked if she’d seek legislation to repeal the law passed in 2007, Martinez said, “We have bigger issues we have to deal with, like balancing the $450 million budget deficit and reviving the economy.”

About 3,000 patients are enrolled in the New Mexico program.

Indeed, it appears that medical marijuana won’t be an issue in the upcoming 60-day session of the Legislature.

State Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a retired police detective who has been vocal in his opposition to medical marijuana, said in a phone interview Thursday that he probably won’t be leading any charge to repeal the program.

Rehm said it’s possible that a repeal bill could clear the House, but it would be hard to get it through the Senate.

A 2007 vote in the House was close, but the Senate passed the “Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act” by a margin of 32-3.

Proponents of medical marijuana were happy with Martinez’s statement.

“I see this program staying intact over the next four years,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored several medical marijuana bills over the past decade. “I feel the program we have, with all its checks and balances, has become a model for the nation. There’s things in the program we need to change and improve. But it’s a long-term experiment.”

Under the law, patients suffering specific medical conditions have to be recommended to the program by a doctor. They can legally obtain marijuana for treatment by growing their own or buying from a licensed provider. There currently are 25 nonprofit providers, though McSorley said that number needs to double to meet demand.

McSorley said that none of the “horrible things” predicted by opponents of the law during the years it was debated in the Legislature have come to pass.

Rehm, however, noted that in the short time the program has been in place, the number of conditions that qualify a patient for the program has expanded.

Currently there are 15 qualifying conditions — among them cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, severe chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder. Those with PTSD need a psychiatrist’s diagnosis to qualify.

Sheila Lewis, interim director of the state’s Drug Policy Alliance — a group that lobbied for years to pass the medical marijuana bill — also said she was glad that Martinez said she won’t focus on repealing the medical marijuana law. Referring to various polls that show support for medical marijuana, Lewis said the governor is following the will of the people.

Some proponents have expressed the fear that even if the Legislature doesn’t rescind the law, Martinez could administratively weaken the program — cutting its budget or establishing administrative regulations that would make it difficult for patients or providers to participate.

Lewis said recently passed regulations that raised fees on marijuana producers will help keep the program self-sufficient. The new fees, adopted by the Health Department last month, are $5,000 for producers licensed less than one year, $10,000 for more than one year, $20,000 for more than two years and $30,000 for more than three years.

Many producers complained that the fees were too high and would make it more expensive for the patients. Lewis said the fact the Health Department raised the number of plants the providers can have to 150 from 95 would help ease the increased financial burden on the providers.

A Health Department spokeswoman, said last month the program needs to take in about $700,000 a year to be self-sufficient.

In addition to the nonprofit marijuana providers, there are about 1,400 patients who are licensed to produce their own supply of marijuana for their treatment. These patients are allowed to have four mature plants and 12 seedlings.