New Policy Follows Firing of Iraq Veteran
Veterans, Patients, Physicians and Advocates Fighting Back
When a state legalizes medical marijuana -- as New Mexico did years ago -- that means you can't get in trouble for being a medicinal cannabis patient, right? Wrong.
New Mexico’s largest county is bucking the state’s medical marijuana law by prohibiting any use of marijuana by county employees, following a new policy issued on November 12 by Bernalillo County Manager Tom Zdunek. The county memorandum cites federal prohibition and county policy as the reason for prohibiting the use of marijuana.
More than 10,000 New Mexican residents are actively enrolled in our state’s Medical Cannabis Program and nearly 4,000 of them live in Bernalillo County. Many are military veterans, patients living with disabilities, and victims of serious trauma and violent crime.
New Mexico’s medical marijuana program is considered a nationwide model. In 2007 New Mexico became the first state to develop and implement a state-licensed medical marijuana production and distribution system.
Earlier this month, veterans and policymakers teamed up to host a public summit launching the new “Freedom to Choose” campaign that aims to address New Mexico’s military veterans’ legal access to medical marijuana. In response to Bernallilo County’s new policy, the campaign has introduced a petition asking for all compassionate New Mexicans to join them in telling Bernalillo County to protect the rights of New Mexicans and to change county policy to allow patients in the medical marijuana program to be allowed to remain employed.
Last December Bernalillo County Corrections Department Lt. Augustine Stanley, a father of four and a US Army veteran, was successfully using medical marijuana to treat symptoms of PTSD acquired from his tour of duty in Iraq, was dismissed after he tested positive for marijuana in a random drug test.
“I tried all the prescription pills the VA gave me, but none of the medications worked. I felt worse than before I took them, more depressed," said Stanley. "Another Corrections officer, who is also a veteran, suggested I try medical marijuana.
"At that point I was willing to try anything, so I became a qualified patient," Stanley said. "Medical marijuana worked for me. I am able to enjoy my children and my wife. I never used my medicine before work. In 13 years of working in corrections there was never a mark on my record. And then one day I was fired. I was even up for a promotion.”
Stanley’s story is not unique. Many military veterans who do not find relief with prescription medication turn to medical marijuana.
“When I returned home from Afghanistan I was diagnosed with PTSD,” said Michael Innis, who served in the General Infantry and who was awarded a Purple Heart after the convoy he was traveling with got hit by an IED and was then ambushed. “I worked with my doctor and tried many prescription drugs.
"Taking handfuls of pills every day, every one with a different set of side effects was hard on my body, and I still experienced some symptoms," Innis said. "Cannabis was not my first choice of medicine, but I tell you first hand, this medicine works for me. Cannabis allows me to leave my house and has helped me to return to work.”
“Tell them not to turn their backs on veterans, patients with disabilities, and victims of trauma and violent crime,” said Nat Dean, another medical cannabis patient diagnosed with chronic pain and PTSD. “We deserve access to the medicine that works for us. Don’t take away our medicine.”
“Current pharmaceutical cocktails have limited efficacy for PTSD, have significant debilitating side-effects, and have in many cases proven deadly,” confirmed Lisa Walker, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist. “Given these facts, along with the experience of thousands of patients whose quality of life has been improved by its use, medical cannabis should continue to be an available treatment for those suffering.
"Patients deserve, above all, the freedom to choose the safest and most effective treatment for their disabling conditions -- whatever that treatment might be,” Dr. Walker said.
“This is a backwards policy that will prevent people who are suffering from accessing the medicine that works for them,” says Jessica Gelay, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in New Mexico. “Many people find by participating in the medical marijuana program they are able to return to the workforce when before they were too sick to be employed.
"It is unconscionable that the County Manager would unilaterally attempt to deny Bernalillo County employees the right to use a medicine recommended by their physician," Gelay said. "It is time to stop demonizing marijuana and creating a double standard for prescription medications.”
The county policy memorandum is out of sync with the nation where the most recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of U.S. residents favor legalizing marijuana for non-medical use.
Even the federal government is showing signs of shifting course. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in August that the federal government would not interfere with or prosecute businesses in Washington or Colorado, as long as they comply with certain guidelines and regulations.
Medical marijuana for criminals?
Some judges allow it, some don't
SANTA FE (KRQE) - It’s a question that may not have occurred to those who designed New Mexico’s medical marijuana program: What happens when doctors prescribe the drug to convicted felons on probation?
The answer, as it turns out, depends on which state District Court judge is supervising the probation.
Convicted felons generally are not allowed to use illegal drugs or alcohol while they serve out their probation sentences. They are often regularly drug-tested to make sure they toe the line.
But consider the case of Daniel Borrego. His criminal history includes convictions for armed robbery, aggravated burglary and conspiracy, and he even participated in a July 2009 Albuquerque home invasion in which a 21-year-old man was shot dead.
On Oct. 7, Borrego appeared before Santa Fe District Judge Michael Vigil, presented his medical marijuana card and asked the judge to allow him to use the drug. Vigil discussed the issue quietly at his bench with the lawyers involved in the case.
“I don’t necessarily want to talk about it openly in front of all these people because they’ll go out and get the marijuana cards and have everyone doing marijuana,” the judge told the lawyers at the hearing.
Borrego’s medical history is protected by law, so the reason why a doctor prescribed him marijuana is unknown. But despite any concerns he might have had, Vigil allowed Borrego to continue to smoke marijuana.
“If the doctor prescribes the medication and feels it’s medically necessary, I don’t feel I can interfere with that doctor-patient relationship,” Vigil later told News 13.
The judge said that since the program began in 2007, he’s allowed a total of four defendants to continue smoking medical marijuana.
However, the father of 21-year-old Kerry Lewis – who was killed in the home invasion – is outraged about the Borrego ruling.
“Utter astonishment,” said Ken Lewis when asked his reaction to the judge’s ruling. “I cannot believe someone who is in a home invasion, looking for drugs, is allowed to smoke marijuana.”
But Judge Stephen Pfeffer – whose courtroom is right next door to Vigil’s – has a different take on the situation. Since 2007, Pfeffer said he’s denied three defendants who’ve asked to be able to smoke pot while on probation.
“I have to be concerned with the safety of the community,” Pfeffer told News 13.
Pfeffer’s most recent denial occurred Oct. 31, when David Jimenez appeared in his court. Jimenez is on probation for his fourth driving while intoxicated charge, and his lawyer told the judge his client had recently been diagnosed with cancer. But even that was not enough to convince Pfeffer.
“(A defendant) facing those charges, or sentence for that matter, has already proven that he or she is incapable of having alcohol or other intoxicants and getting into an automobile,” Pfeffer said.
Still, both judges said they don’t have a hard and fast rule about medicinal marijuana and will consider each case individually.
And the problem isn’t only happening in Santa Fe.
On Oct. 31, Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies raided Joe Baca’s home in southwest Albuquerque. Baca, 27, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and had a state-issued license allowing him to grow and smoke marijuana. Court records indicate that a District Court judge in Albuquerque allowed Baca to use marijuana while on probation for pleading no contest to shooting at a building and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
However, deputies found 22 pounds of pot, 13 plants and $10,000 in cash in Baca’s home, and charged him with possession with intent to distribute the drug.
News 13 left several messages for District Judge Ted Baca – the presiding judge of the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque – asking if probationers with medical marijuana cards has been a recurring problem in the district. Baca did not return the messages.
The New Mexico Health Department is in charge of administering the state’s medical marijuana program. Cabinet Secretary Catherine Torres said officials do not ask about a patient’s criminal background.
“It’s not about caring about their background,” Torres said. “It’s called HIPAA and they’re treated as patients.
HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and, among other things, it requires a patient’s health information to be kept confidential.
Torres said most law enforcement officers notify her office when a medical marijuana card carrier violates drug laws, though that is not required. She said her legal team will sit down soon with judges in the state to review the program.
Ken Lewis said that review can’t come soon enough. He said he supports the medical marijuana program in some cases, but believes the wrong people are legally getting high.
“It’s a mockery,” he said. “It’s a total mockery of what the marijuana law is passed for.”
News 13 also asked how jails and prisons handle inmates who might have medical marijuana cards. A spokeswoman for the state Corrections Department said the
department wouldn’t allow it. The jail director at the Santa Fe County jail also said it wouldn’t be allowed.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Detention Center said officials there would work to have the inmate released on probation and with an ankle monitor.
Posted at: 04/01/2011 8:42 PM
By: Gadi Schwartz, KOB Eyewitness News 4; Charlie Pabst, KOB.com
Nonprofit groups hoping to sell medical marijuana in New Mexico are suing Governor Martinez and the state health department, saying not enough applications are being approved.
Since New Mexico's medical marijuana law went into effect, only 25 nonprofits have been approved out of 116 applications.
Before they can sell medical pot, applicants must spend time and money forming a nonprofit, selecting a board and setting up a business.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, says those groups have done all of that, but still haven't been given licenses, while a select few have.
Dominick Zurlo with the New Mexico Department of Health said Friday, "We want to make sure that we can provide the best services for the patients so yeah there is no way to actually say it's going to take us two months, three months, it really depends on the quality of the proposal."
Calls to the lawyer filing the suit were not returned Friday.