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New Mexico Moves Toward Drug Law Reform

Progressive Policies In New Mexico Prove Effective

New Mexico Issues Medical Marijuana Provider Regulations

According to a January 30, 2009 feature in the Drug War Chronicle, "the New Mexico Department of Health issued its long overdue regulation for state-licensed, nonprofit medical marijuana providers, making it the first state to do so" ("New Mexico Issues Regulations for Nonprofit Medical Marijuana Grows"). New Mexico had pledged to draft the regulations by October of 2007, but with "numerous state agencies and law enforcment entities, as well as patients and advocates all trying to ensure that their interests and concerns were met," the process took nearly a year and a half to complete.

The Chronicle reports that "Under the newly promulgated regulations, nonprofit providers can grow no more than 95 plants, [...] and can possess an amount of medical marijuana 'that reflects current qualified patient needs.'" Additionally, dispensaries "must sell medicine at constant unit prices and without volume discounts." The steps required to become a registered provider are much more arduous; "nonprofit[ distribution centers] must provide copies of their articles of incorporation and bylaws, a list of all people involved in operating the facility" and of "all people who have a 5% or greater ownership in the facility," and "have a board of directors that includes at least one health care professional and three qualified New Mexico medical marijuana patients." Furthermore, all aforementioned individuals are required to submit to criminal background checks." As if that weren't enough, the regulations call for applicants to, among other things, establish "[d]istribution criteria for qualified patients or caregivers appropriate for medical cannabis services," maintain "a clear identifiable photocopy of each registry identification card," adhere to all "[p]olicies and procedures relating to an alcohol and drug free workplace program," keep on file numerous documents pertaining to each employee's background, and provide employees with "[o]n-site training" related not only to medical marijuana itself but also security measures.

The regulations extend to patients who wish to grow their own marijuana, as well. As the Chronicle states, "patients who are growing their own [must] submit an application" to obtain permission to do so; patients whose applications are accepted can grow no more than "four flowering plants and 12 seedlings" and "possess up to six ounces of usable marijuana."

New Mexican officials appear happy with the regulations. Melissa Milam, administrator of the state's Medical Cannabis Program, said that she thinks "the regulations will serve the patients of New Mexico well," and Governor Bill Richardson looked positively radiant in press photos taken while he was signing the regulations. But not everyone responded so jubilantly. Highly-qualified and thoroughly knowledgeable epidemiologist Bernie Ellis, MA, MPH, said the "biggest frustration I share with other medical marijuana activists nationally is that the New Mexico legislation could have been the gold standard for administering medical cannabis programs, but instead it has turned out to be just one more 'same old-same old' program with unrealistically low limits on the amount of cannabis patients can possess and providers can grow." He discussed his reservations in great detail with the Chronicle, and interested parties should check out the above linked feature to read more of Ellis' thoughtful critique (though he "took pains to emphasize" his support of the state's program in general). New Mexican officials seem uninterested in making changes to the regulations, however, and stress that they provide "safety valve[s]" for patients who, for example, may need to grow more than the sanctioned amount. Officials like Milam even admitted that she sometimes has to tell doctors that their patients who need medicinal cannabis "on an emergency basis" will have to "find it themselves." She stresses that "This is a prime example of why the federal government needs to get marijuana rescheduled as Schedule II."

Medical marijuana advocates say they will be keeping a close watch on how well the regulations "serve the needs of patients." According to Reena Szczepanski, head of the Drug Policy Alliance's New Mexico office, "As these nonprofits go forward, we will be watching to see if they are approved and if not, why not, and making sure the reg[ulations] are being followed."

You can view the regulations themselves, as well as the state's patient application, in PDF form via New Mexico's Health Department website.

New Mexico: No Drug Charge If Overdose Is Reported

The state of New Mexico has enacted a law allowing drug users to report overdoses without fearing arrest as a result. The New York Times reported on April 5, 2007 ("New Mexico Bars Drug Charge When Overdose Is Reported") that "Struggling with an epidemic of drug fatalities, New Mexico has enacted a groundbreaking law providing immunity from prosecution for people who come forward to help drug users suffering overdoses. The act, signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Bill Richardson, prevents the authorities from prosecuting on the basis of evidence 'gained as a result of the seeking of medical assistance.' It also protects drug users themselves from prosecution if the process of seeking help for an overdose provides the only evidence against them. The legislation, which was popularly known as the 911 Good Samaritan bill, is the first of its kind in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures."

According to the Times, "The Samaritan bill, introduced by State Senator Richard C. Martinez, a Democrat and a retired magistrate judge from Espanola, also provides that in the event of a drug prosecution based on outside evidence, the act of seeking aid for someone suffering an overdose 'may be used as a mitigating factor' in a defense."

The Times noted that "In a statement yesterday, Mr. Richardson, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, said: 'I have always been committed to prevention and rehabilitation of drug users. If we can encourage people to save themselves or others from a drug-related death or trauma, then we should do that. This bill will encourage families and friends of addicts to seek medical care and prevent their loved one from dying.'"

New Mexico Approves Medical Marijuana

In early April 2007, New Mexico became the 12th state to approve legislation allowing patients in need to get access to medical marijuana. The Associated Press reported on April 3, 2007 ("Pot Now Legal For Serious Illness") that "Nearly three decades after medical marijuana first was approved in New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday signed a law authorizing the state Department of Health to give the drug to some seriously ill patients. New Mexico became the 12th state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons. Richardson said the new law provides 'a humane option for New Mexicans living with cancer, HIV and other serious medical conditions.' The second-term governor is seeking the 2008 Democratic nomination, and Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico said he is the first presidential candidate to sign medical marijuana into law."

According to the AP, "The law is named in part after Lynn Pierson, a Vietnam veteran who was dying of lung cancer when he lobbied lawmakers for a medical marijuana bill, linked to a research program, that was passed in 1978. Pierson didn't live long enough to use the progam, which provided marijuana to cancer patients to relieve the nausea of chemotherapy. It lost its funding in 1986 and became defunct. Richardson's signing of the bill, which takes effect July 1, drew immediate criticism from White House drug czar John Walters, who had asked the governor not to sign it. Walters in an interview called it 'disappointing' and 'irresponsible.'

The AP noted that "New Mexico's health department will set up the program, which will be overseen by an eight-member board of physicians. Patients with certification from their doctors could apply to the state agency, which would issue identification cards. The health department must obtain the marijuana from production facilities in the state 'housed on secure grounds and operated by licensed producers.' Patients could not grow their own. 'So we have the proper safeguards,' Richardson said at a news conference. The department is supposed to issue rules for the program in the fall. The governor estimated 200 people could use the program. 'It's a humane piece of legislation. It does not mean I support legalizing marijuana,' Richardson said. 'It means that we are alleviating suffering ... and I must tell you, I was overcome by the personal stories of pain and the personal appeals I got.' The governor said he had heard from law enforcement agencies unhappy with the new law, and he acknowledged it may be unpopular with others as well. 'So be it,' he said."

Republican Schism In New Mexico May Scuttle Drug Reform Efforts

Some of Governor Johnson's drug reform measures may have hit a roadblock in the state legislature. As the Albuquerque Journal reported on January 29, 2002 ( "Governor's Decriminalization Bill Stalls In House"), "A proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana ran into a dead end Tuesday in a House committee. The Consumer and Public Affairs Committee shelved the proposal on a unanimous voice vote. Supporters acknowledged that the measure probably was dead for the 30- day session - a victim partly of election year pressures in the Legislature. All 70 House seats are up for election this year."

The main objection seems to lie in assertions by an opposition group that the medical marijuana and drug treatment measures will open the door for future efforts to legalize narcotics. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on Feb. 6, 2002 ( "Republicans Feud Over Drug-Reform Legislation") that according to Rep. Ron Godbey, "the current drug-reform legislation 'is part of an incremental attempt to legalize drugs one step at a time.' The bills aimed at allowing the use of prescription marijuana for medical purposes ( SB8 ) and removing criminal sanctions for the possession of small amounts of pot ( HB25 ) 'would not legalize heroin and cocaine - just toking marijuana ... but ( reform advocates will ) be back next year,' Godbey said. A fierce opponent of drug reform, Godbey also said a third drug-reform bill ( SB331 ) making treatment instead of incarceration mandatory for first-time nonviolent offenders 'is a subtle way to legalize heroin and cocaine' because it removes the sanction of jail time for users of those drugs."

Still, many in New Mexico support Governor Johnson and his reforms. As the Albuquerque Tribune editorialized on February 5, 2002 ( "Legislature Should Pass Marijuana Bills"), "In spite of efforts to characterize the reforms as dangerous and at odds with the national 'war on drugs,' the reforms are reasonable and overdue. They moderate harsh drug policies which the evidence shows have been ineffective, unnecessarily punitive, discriminatory and costly to the state, the nation and people. While the local perception is that New Mexico is radically leading the way in national drug reform - perhaps because of the governor's efforts to jump-start a broad national debate on this issue - the reality is that lawmakers are considering only careful reforms already endorsed by several states."

Governor Gary Johnson Debates DEA Chief Asa Hutchinson

(The debate between Governor Johnson and DEA Administrator Hutchinson is posted online by The Justice Talking Show. To listen to streaming audio of the debate, as well as check out some of their other resources, Click Here.)

As reported in the Albuquerque Journal on Sept. 11, 2001 ("Johnson, DEA Talk Dope"), "Two baby boomer guys, children of the 1960s, got together in Albuquerque on Monday to talk about drugs. But Gary Johnson, New Mexico's governor, and Asa Hutchinson, administrator of the nation's Drug Enforcement Administration - both trim Republicans with blue suits and conservative haircuts - could not have been farther apart on the direction the country's drug policies should take. In an hourlong national radio debate, Johnson, a 48-year-old former pot smoker, hammered home the message that has become his crusade: Marijuana is not as harmful as alcohol and government resources are wasted in arresting and jailing pot smokers who otherwise do not break the law."

A partial transcript of the debate as broadcast on NPR is available by clicking here.

Governor Gary Johnson Appears At Lindesmith-Drug Policy Foundation Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, appeared at the 14th annual international drug policy conference held in Albuquerque, NM, sponsored by the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.

The Albuquerque Journal reported on June 2, 2001 ( "Hundreds Cheer Governor's Drug-Reform Stance") that:
"The Republican was the keynote speaker on the final day of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation international conference.
"The organization -- which is working toward drug reform and policy based on 'public health, science, common sense and human rights' -- met in Albuquerque this past week. About 700 people attended the meeting. Its theme was 'Drug Policies for the New Millennium.'
"Johnson during his second term has pushed for drug reform, including the legalization of marijuana, describing the national war on drugs as 'a miserable failure.'"

Governor Gary Johnson Appears At NORML Conference, Makes Several Appearances On National Media Over April 20 Weekend

Governor Gary Johnson was a keynote speaker at the national NORML conference in Washington, DC April 19-21, 2001 ( "Governor Rouses Choir With Drug Stand," Albuquerque (NM) Tribune, April 19, 2001). In addition to his appearance there, Governor Johnson made the rounds of Washington's political talk shows, including:

Governor Johnson's Efforts Pick Up Endorsement

Governor Gary Johnson's drug policy reform efforts picked up a surprise endorsement from another noted Republican politician, former Secretary of State George Schultz. According to the Associated Press on Wednesday, March 14 ( "Johnson Gets Lofty Support For Drug Policy Reform Plans"), "The governor said Schultz, who served under President Reagan, told him they shared the view that the war on drugs had been a failure."

An important piece of Governor Johnson's drug reform package has cleared the Senate unanimously. According to The Albuquerque Journal, the bill "will remove potential legal barriers for people to administer a drug that can help prevent deaths from heroin overdoses. The bill would eliminate civil and criminal liability for an individual who administers a drug overdose antidote, such as naloxone, under certain conditions." The bill would also "allow licensed health care professionals to prescribe naloxone without being subject to civil liability or criminal prosecution."

(For more information about use of naloxone in cases of heroin overdose, see "Heroin-related deaths in New South Wales, 1992: toxicological findings and circumstances" from the Medical Journal of Australia).

A state-wide poll in New Mexico shows "overwhelming support for decriminalizing marijuana and making 'medical marijuana' legal for certain patients, according to a report in The Santa Fe New Mexican. The results show:

  • 78 percent of registered NM voters support allowing medical marijuana
  • 65 percent support a proposal to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction
  • 63 percent support a proposal to send people to drug treatment rather than prison for first and second offenses of possession of heroin or cocaine.

The full set of poll results can be found at this webpage.

CNN News reports that "A drug reform bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana passed its first hurdle" on March 6, 2001. The bill was passed by a 6-1 vote in the NM House committee on consumer and public affairs. The report notes that the decrim bill will go through several other committees before it reaches the full House.

Two of Governor Johnson's reform bills cleared important committees earlier in 2001. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on Feb. 21, 2001 that "Bills that would legalize marijuana for sufferers of certain medical conditions cleared major hurdles Tuesday, getting favorable recommendations and bipartisan support from two legislative committees."

New Mexico Reform Package Gets National Attention

National news media have noticed the trend at the state level to rethink harsh policies and move toward reform. Governor Johnson recently appeared on the CNN News program The Spin Room to discuss drug policy issues (to view a complete transcript of the program click here).

On the program, the Governor pointed to Holland as a country with rational drug policies. Governor Johnson articulated his position on what the US drug policy should be:
"It is amazing that, as politicians, we hear all the time, you know, what are you going to do about property crime, what are you going to do about violent crime, what are you going to do about all the people in jail. You give them an answer: well, you could start by legalizing marijuana and you could start by adopting harm reduction strategies on all these other drugs, and you would, in fact, positively impact these statistics."
The Governor said that "The government should start to adopt harm reduction strategies, and these harm reduction strategies -- so, you know, what we're trying to start out here on small steps. Do you want to kill a heroin addict, or do you want to save their life first and then you want to try to get them off heroin?"

Governor Johnson also appeared on the ABC News program Nightline at the end of January 2001 to discuss drug law reform. And, the Christian Science Monitor noted in its February 6, 2001 issue that "A quiet revolution is brewing that could transform the nation's approach to dealing with illicit drug use. And some of the leading rebels, and newest converts, are state-level Republicans."

Legislative Package

The bills in Governor Johnson's drug reform legislative package include:

  1. Additional $9.8 Million for Drug Treatment and Prevention Services: Senate Bill 628
  2. Civil asset forfeiture reform: House Bill 18, Senate Bill 314
  3. Medical Marijuana: House Bill 431, Senate Bill 319
  4. Syringe sales: Senate Bill 320
  5. Limited liability for naloxone use: Senate Bill 318
  6. Marijuana decriminalization: Senate Bill 315
  7. Habitual offender reform: Senate Bill 313
  8. Reduction in penalty/treatment instead of incarceration for hard drugs: Senate Bill 317

According to The Santa Fe New Mexican, Governor Johnson "will double the amount of money for drug-rehabilitation treatment programs from what he originally proposed" from $5 Million to $10 Million. The story also notes that "While all of Johnson's drug-reform bills have been introduced in the Senate, only two have been introduced in the House."

The NY Times reports that Governor Johnson is optimistic about his legislation's chances for passage, "citing public response that he said was running 20-to-1 in favor."

Back in 2000, Governor Johnson (R-NM) appointed a Drug Policy Advisory Group to examine drug policy in New Mexico, and also come up with policy ideas for the state.

The report was issued in January of 2001 (a PDF copy of the report can be downloaded directly by clicking here).

Governor Johnson and the panel's recommendations were the subject of a column by Arianna Huffington suggesting Governor Johnson be appointed the next Drug Czar ("Bush's Drug Czar: A Modest Proposal", Jan. 11, 2001).

Search the MAP news archive for stories on Governor Johnson, including this excellent profile by Matthew Miller, "He Just Said No To The Drug War" published in the New York Times Magazine in August 2000.

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