Inside the Capitol

Friday, February 03, 2006

2-8 Is It About Medicine or Marijuana?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Is the medical marijuana bill all about medicine or marijuana? That's the vexing question many lawmakers are asking themselves this year.
This is another of those issues that affect only a few New Mexicans, but that take up a significant amount of time because they are so high-profile and emotionally charged.
More attention should be directed at education, health insurance, taxes, the budget and major economic development ventures such as a spaceport, which affect many New Mexicans. But it is an issue that is not going away until it is dealt with decisively, one way or the other.
Last year, it appeared that was about to happen. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley of Albuquerque, whizzed through the Senate and past two House committees with only one dissenting vote. It was on the House calendar for action several days before the end of the session.
But then, one influential House member, Rep. Dan Silva, became upset that a pet bill for his district was bottled up in McSorley's Senate Judiciary Committee and he managed to keep the medical marijuana bill from ever being acted upon.
So the process had to begin again this year, in a short session, which required a governor's message to even make it germane. Once again, the measure passed the Senate easily, by a 34-6 margin, with members voting for it who never had done so before. All Democrats supported it, plus 12 of 18 Republicans.
The bill is now in the House, where Speaker Ben Lujan, of Nambe, has promised nothing more than to not derail it. A few hours after making that statement, Lujan assigned the bill to the House Agriculture Committee instead of a committee that had heard it last year.
That isn't necessarily bad news. It likely will require a longer hearing, but it means additional people will become familiar with it. And for proponents of the bill, it may be good, since additional information seems to sway committee members in favor of the legislation.
For some House members, support of the measure will be an agonizing decision. Although polls show that a majority of Americans and New Mexicans support the use of marijuana for specific medical purposes, that support doesn't extend to all legislative districts.
If a lawmakers representing these districts become convinced that for medical and compassionate reasons they should support the measure, they must be prepared to convince their constituents they did the right thing.
Had this issue passed the Legislature last year, there would have been plenty of time to explain. Senators don't have to stand for reelection until 2008. But House members will be facing their electorate in a little more than a week. The timing this year isn't great.
It also may not be good for Gov. Bill Richardson. He's not expected to pick up many votes if he signs the legislation, which he put on his call for the session. But he could lose votes from some who have strong moral reservations.
It also may not help in a national race, especially since marijuana is a federally banned substance. There are ways to structure a law to put it at least in a gray area as far as defying federal law is concerned. And that is what Richardson says he wants.
Eleven other states have such legislation, including some of our neighbors, so Richardson wouldn't be alone. But he could be the only governor seeking national office to have signed medical marijuana legislation.
Actually, New Mexico was the first state to approve marijuana for medical situations. In 1978, Lynn Pierson, a conscientious, sincere young man, convinced the Legislature to allow therapeutic research into medical marijuana. The program continued until it ran out of funds in 1986. Pierson died shortly after its passage.
A good discussion of the pros and cons of medical marijuana can be found in the Legislative Finance Committee's financial impact report on Senate Bill 258, available at Click on "Bill Finder."
WED, 2-08-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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