New Mexico won't oversee medical marijuana production

New Mexico won't oversee medical marijuana production
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico will not grow medical marijuana for seriously ill patients for fear that the federal government could prosecute state workers, but will continue to certify which patients are eligible to possess the drug.

The state health department said Wednesday it will not comply with a portion of the new medical marijuana law that requires it to oversee production and distribution of the drug. It will still certify patients as eligible to possess marijuana, protecting them from state prosecution.

"The Department of Health will not subject its employees to potential federal prosecution, and therefore will not distribute or produce medical marijuana," said Dr. Alfredo Vigil, who heads the agency.

The decision came after state Attorney General Gary King cautioned last week that the agency and its employees could face federal prosecution for implementing the new law, and that his office can't defend state workers in criminal cases. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.

The attorney general's office, which acts as legal counsel for state agencies, was pleased with the health department's decision, spokesman Phil Sisneros said.

Medical marijuana advocate Reena Szczepanski said the department is "leaving itself vulnerable to a lawsuit" for not complying with the law. She urged the agency to reconsider so patients would be able to get the drug from a source that's legal under state law.

"I remember certain legislators talking about how they didn't want their grandmother to have to go into some alley and deal with some criminal element," said Szczepanski, a lobbyist for Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico who helped push the legislation through this year.

Medical marijuana advocates say no state employee ever has been federally prosecuted for implementing a state medical marijuana law.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat who pushed for medical marijuana legalization, said he was frustrated that issues thoroughly aired during the legislative process are now being cited to hold up full enactment of the law.

"The solution is the governor," he added, noting that Gov. Bill Richardson had supported the legislation.

A message seeking comment was left with Richardson's staff. Richardson, who is running for president, is campaigning in Iowa this week. If nothing changes, Ortiz y Pino said, the matter will be brought before the Legislature in January.

Thirty patients have been approved to participate in the program since the law took effect July 1, according to a department spokeswoman.

New Mexico - alone among the dozen states with medical marijuana laws - requires that the state license marijuana producers and develop a distribution system. The rules were to be issued by Oct. 1. The department will go ahead with the process of making the permanent rules, said spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer.

"What we're doing now is what every other state is doing that has a medical marijuana law. ... Those states have set a precedent in being able to successfully do that," she said.