July 5, 2007 -- New Mexico is set to become the first U.S. state to set up a cultivation and distribution system for medical marijuana, sewing the seeds of a possible showdown with federal drug enforcement authorities.
Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, signed the "pot bill" into law this year and tasked the state's Department of Health with establishing a way to grow and distribute the crop to patients by Oct. 1. The new law may be at odds with federal law, which supersedes state laws, and tightly controls who can grow marijuana and for what purposes.
Even New Mexico's Attorney General Gary King doesn't endorse the plan. "We are not behind this. This is not part of what we were asked to look at, and it is not the position of the attorney general," said Phil Sisneros, the attorney general's director of communications.
The state can't guarantee that marijuana users and distributors won't be prosecuted under federal law, he said. That's a situation that has become all too common in California, where the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has raided dozens of medical marijuana "pot clubs," claiming they are simply distributing weed to anyone who drops in.
"It comes down to politics and the degree to which the federal government wants to employ law enforcement resources to try to stop a state from providing medicine to sick people," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that lobbies for relaxation of drug laws.
Smoky Future for State Law
The state is immune from federal prosecution if it simply allows patients and caregivers to cultivate the medicine themselves, Abrahamson said. But when the state itself is the grower and provider, there might be conflict with federal law, he admitted.
Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said exceptions to U.S. marijuana law have been made for university-sponsored research programs. But he doubts they will apply to the New Mexico plan.
To gain an exception to the Controlled Substances Act, which regulates the manufacture, possession and distribution of controlled substances, federal law requires that one who grows or distributes marijuana must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman.
The DEA looks at what the drug is, how it's used, and the security controls in place before it approves the producer or distributor, he said. Even where security measures have appeared strong in other states, DEA officials said the agency has busted countless medical marijuana clinics that looked legitimate but in reality sold pot to nonpatients.
From a federal standpoint, the fate of any New Mexico-sanctioned distribution system isn't clear. The DEA generally goes after large-scale drug trafficking, and leaves the arrests of local users mostly to state law enforcement, Courtney said.
Pot Policy Debate
New Mexico's Department of Health said it's trying to spare patients the travails of buying drugs on the black market by supplying them with medical marijuana from a known, secure source under strict regulation and quality control.
"It's pointless to say that these individuals can have access and then not give them a way to legally get the marijuana that doesn't feed drug dealers," said Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, who lobbied for the past three years for the new law. She said she hopes that some day patients will have safe and affordable access to medical marijuana from their local pharmacies.
But some critics in Washington aren't convinced and say the 11 states that have passed medical marijuana laws are sending the wrong message.
"This isn't about doctors trying to ease pain. It's about drug legalization groups hiding behind people who are sick and dying in order to promote their cause," said Lemaitre of the Office of Drug Control Policy. The implementation of other state medical marijuana laws has led to egregious abuses of the system, particularly in California, he said.
In North Hollywood, Calif., alone, there are now more medical pot clubs than Starbucks outlets, he said. Less than two years ago, there were only four marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, and this year's figure has topped 100.
People who use pot for medical purposes say the New Mexico law is much needed. A multiple sclerosis sufferer and medicinal marijuana user, who asked to be called "Lynne," told ABC News that a state-sponsored distribution system would put her at ease. "It would be great to have a regulated distribution system. This could mean that I will never have to deal with a criminal again or just not be able to get pain relief because I can't find a dealer," she said.
Starting July 1, patients in the state began applying for the medicinal marijuana program to obtain an identification card that would provide immunity from state prosecution for possessing a three-month supply of up to 6 ounces of pot.
To qualify, the patient's primary doctor must certify that the patient suffers either from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with intractable spasticity, epilepsy or HIV/ADS, and that the benefit of medical marijuana outweighs the potential risks.
"It's a compassionate policy, and I'm hopeful that when the Bush administration has more pressing issues like the war in Iraq to tackle, this one will be allowed to survive," Abrahamson said.