February 9, 2017

Medical cannabis bill would let vets enroll without diagnosis

Medical marijuana prescription

A Senate committee voted Wednesday in favor of a bill that would make changes to New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, but some lawmakers were troubled by a section that would allow veterans to enroll without being diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition.

One state senator who voted in favor of the measure said he might change his vote when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Senate Bill 8 — which would increase the amounts of marijuana patients could possess and producers could grow — would be the first legislative change to the medical marijuana program since it was approved 10 years ago, said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor. McSorley also carried the original medical marijuana bill that passed the Legislature in 2007.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-3 along party lines to send the bill to the full Senate.

McSorley defended the change for veterans, saying it’s necessary because many veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder don’t want to be stigmatized by having a PTSD diagnosis. He said admitting any veteran into the program also will reduce suicides in the state.

“Veterans are in a tough situation,” he said after the vote.

Asked by committee members if he thought the change allowing all veterans into the program was essential to the bill, McSorley said it was.

But some senators were skeptical.

Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, a former Navy SEAL and retired rear admiral, said admitting all veterans into the program implies that all veterans have PTSD, which he said he finds offensive.

Another veteran on the committee, Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, also said he was offended by the bill for that reason.

And Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, asked, “Aren’t we essentially legalizing recreational marijuana for all veterans?”

He supports proposals that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana use for adults in New Mexico, Candelaria said. But he’s skeptical about allowing people into the Medical Cannabis Program for reasons other than medical conditions.

“I may vote differently on the floor,” he said after the committee vote.

The bill would allow patients in the program to possess up to 5 ounces of marijuana during a 30-day period. Currently, patients are allowed to possess 8 ounces during a 90-day period.

Marijuana producers, who currently are allowed to have up to 450 plants, would gradually be able to have more plants as the number of patients in the program increases, according to the latest version of the bill.

The bill would set in statute all the qualifying medical conditions for the program currently listed in state Health Department regulations. It also would add “substance abuse disorder” for those undergoing treatment for addiction. A Health Department advisory panel last year recommended adding “opiate use disorder” to the list of qualifying conditions, but the Health Department has yet to adopt the recommendation.

Valerie Gremillion, a neuroscience researcher, told the committee that marijuana is a good way to fight addiction to opioids, methamphetamine and alcohol. “It’s much less harmful than so many of the other drugs,” she said.

The bill would set into law a requirement that the state Health Department issue medical cannabis ID cards to patients within 30 days, and would extend the term of an ID card to three years for a patient with a chronic, debilitating condition. Under current law, all medical marijuana ID cards expire in one year.

Dr. Steven Rosenberg, an Albuquerque physician who specializes in cannabis medicine, told the committee he objects to that provision. He said doctors should reassess their patients’ need for marijuana at least once a year and, in some cases, even more frequently.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell @sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.