February 13, 2017

Medical marijuana expansion bill clears Senate

Medical marijuana prescription

Medical marijuana patients would be able to possess more cannabis and producers would eventually be able to grow more under a bill that cleared the state Senate on Monday by a wide margin.

Senators voted 29-11 in favor of Senate Bill 177, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, it would change the state’s medical marijuana program to allow patients to have 5 ounces of cannabis, and it would allow producers to increase the number of plants they can grow when the number of patients in the program increases. Cannabis producers can now grow up to 450 plants.

The bill comes as the number of patients in the program is exploding. The latest statistics from the Department of Health show 32,840 medical cannabis patients in New Mexico. That’s more than three times the number that were authorized in early 2014. That growth had created a backlog in processing applications and strained available supplies from licensed producers.

More patients can be expected if McSorley’s bill becomes law. It would add the condition of “substance abuse disorder” for those undergoing treatment for addiction to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use.

McSorley carried the medical marijuana bill that became law in 2007. “That bill had numerous checks and balances,” he told the Senate. “But over the last 10 years that bill has become somewhat outdated and some of those provisions need to be revised. This is the first amendment we’ve done in 10 years to the medical cannabis program. And there’s one thing this bill does. It helps the patients.”

The Senate removed one part of the bill that stirred much debate last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee. McSorley offered an amendment — which passed unanimously — to remove a provision that would have allowed all military veterans — regardless of medical conditions — to be admitted to the medical marijuana program. Some senators argued that the bill would, in effect, legalize recreational marijuana for veterans.

McSorley initially defended that provision, saying it was necessary because many veterans who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder don’t want to be stigmatized through a formal diagnosis. He said admitting any veteran into the program would reduce suicides.

McSorley’s amendment Monday also removed a proposal to allow patients to renew their medical marijuana cards every three years instead of every year.

Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, who worked with McSorley on the amendment, nevertheless voted against the bill.

“I have no doubt that medical marijuana helps some patients,” Payne said. But, he said, he couldn’t support the bill because marijuana use violates federal law. Payne said the state’s congressional delegation should push the federal government to take marijuana off the Schedule 1 drug list, which also includes heroin and LSD.

Payne and 10 other Republican senators voted against the bill. Five Republicans joined 24 Democrats in supporting the bill. Two other Democrats, Sens. Benny Shendo of Jemez Pueblo and Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, skipped the vote.

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