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Legal Fears Hack Away At State's Pot Plan

Lord Mong

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New Mexico could have been the first state in the nation to build a centralized production and distribution system for medical marijuana, but the Health Department doesn’t want to take the risk of butting up against federal law.

Upon advice from Attorney General Gary King, Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil said the second phase of the new state law that would have made that happen won’t be pursued.

“The Department of Health will not subject its employees to potential federal prosecution, and therefore will not distribute or produce medical marijuana,” Vigil said in a written statement Wednesday.

That decision appears to leave patients who participate in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program with three options: grow their own marijuana plants; purchase bags of pot on the black market; or get a prescription for the legal, synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol, one of 400 chemicals in the marijuana plant.

But Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico — a group that lobbied for the law — insists there are other solutions, if only King would provide “more meaningful” legal direction.

“I hope they aren’t ruling out any producing or distributing by other entities,” she said. “We’re not expecting department employees to risk prosecution themselves. We ask them for a serious conversation with the AG about other possibilities.”

The Health Department could set up a mechanism for private companies or groups of volunteers to take on production and distribution. She envisions the state putting out a formal request for proposals, selecting a vendor and then forwarding the plans to a federal judge or federal agency for final approval.

“Those other options don’t seem to be part of the discussion,” she said. “I find it frustrating.”

Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California San Francisco who helped the New Mexico Health Department define aspects of the Medical Cannabis Program, said the private sector could open up dispensaries like the ones his state has.

Szczepanski isn’t keen on that idea. She said the cultural climate in New Mexico isn’t the same as California’s and a dispensary would be shut down quickly. Also, the dispensaries in California have been raided by federal agencies, she said.

Vigil said it might take action by the Legislature to allow private dispensaries.

New approach

For years, advocates have worked on getting a medical marijuana law passed in New Mexico. When New Mexico became the 12th state to enact such a law, it took an approach that hadn’t been tried elsewhere.

“That was, I thought, a bit bold and slightly risky,” Abrams said of the centralized distribution system.

He said the city of San Francisco considered such a system, but the idea never got off the ground because it flies in the face of federal law. Abrams has conducted government-sponsored clinical research on medical marijuana on 150 people over the past 10 years, and he believes it is beneficial for some conditions with little chance of harm.

Szczepanski said New Mexico took this approach, however, because lawmakers were adamant they didn’t want to create a system that would give business to drug dealers.

And advocates wanted New Mexico to adopt a pharmaceutical model, so the purity of the pot would be consistent, rather than replicating California’s storefront model, she added.

The AG warned lawmakers during the 2007 session about putting the Health Department in charge of overseeing pot growers and distributors. Vigil — who was not health secretary when the law passed — said now “it’s playing out the way it was predicted to play out.”

Szczepanski said the Health Department still must live up to the requirements of the law.

The law requires the Health Department by Oct. 1 to establish requirements and procedures for licensing marijuana production facilities; to develop a distribution system for medical marijuana on secured grounds in New Mexico and operated by licensed producers; and to map out distribution points for patients that are not within 300 feet of any school, church or daycare center.

Safe access

Tom Woods, who splits his time between Houston and Albuquerque, said he doesn’t have an easy time obtaining marijuana. “It’s difficult for me, so I was hoping this Phase 2 (of the New Mexico medical marijuana law) would come to fruition,” he said. “I end up without it a lot, and it’s not fun.”

In 1991, he had a cancerous tumor the size of a tennis ball removed from his brain. Afterward, he found himself sitting in a stupor with a blank stare, having difficulty being productive or keeping up with conversations.

He tried Ritalin and antidepressants, but neither helped, he said. A few years ago, he resorted to marijuana and found the stimulation it gave his brain made him more alert and productive.

“It’s pathetic that it’s being treated like this,” he said. “The feds want to crack down and the states want to be compassionate to their people.”

Woods said he had planned to apply to the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do now without a safe system of access.

Marijuana is classified a controlled substance under federal law, and the U.S. government holds the position that the mind-altering herb is a gateway drug, not a medicine.

The new law took effect July 1, and so far, the Health Department has approved 30 out of 66 applications from patients. Two others are pending review. The top three conditions are multiple sclerosis, cancer and spinal cord injuries with intractable spasticity.

Approved patients receive an identification card and can possess up to a three-month supply of marijuana. While protected from state prosecution, they aren’t shielded from federal prosecution.

“The Department of Health believes in the merits of the program and will continue to certify that patients who need relief from chronic, debilitating conditions are allowed to have medical marijuana under state law,” Vigil said.

News Hawk: Lord Mong - 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Source: Santafenewmexican. Com
Author: Diana Del Mauro
Copyright: 2007 The New Mexican, Inc.
Website: Medical Marijuana: Legal fears hack away at state's pot plan
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