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An Abridged History of Medical Cannabis in New Mexico | 9.29.20

The debate over medical cannabis use in New Mexico goes back to the 1970s. But it really cranked up in the 1990s, when former Governor Gary Johnson came out in support of legalization and decriminalization. It was a controversial stance at the time, but was coupled by the early stages of a push for legislation creating a medical cannabis program. That debate would last for nearly a decade, but the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act was signed into law in 2007. In this episode of “Growing Forward” we look back at that time and talk to lawmakers and advocates who worked tirelessly to create the nation’s 13th medical cannabis program. 

Suggested Reading: 

Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act

Episode Music: 

Blue Dot Sessions – “Svela Tal”

Blue Dot Sessions – “Highride”

Blue Dot Sessions – “Neon Drip”

Chad Crouch – “American Coot”

Chad Crouch – “Western Tanager”

Chad Crouch – “Wilson’s Snipe”

Podington Bear – “Good Times”

Christian Bjoerklund – “Hallon”

Growing Forward Logo Created By:

Katherine Conley


“Growing Forward” is a collaboration between New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico PBS, and is funded through a grant from The New Mexico Local News Fund. 



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Megan Kamerick: This is growing forward, a podcast exploring the cannabis industry in New Mexico. It’s a business sector that tends to be overlooked in discussions about economic development in the state, perhaps because of lingering stereotypes about cannabis and who uses it.

Andy Lyman: But it’s an industry that is growing literally and figuratively. And that growth is poised to explode. If lawmakers move to legalize it next year.

Dede Feldman: you can’t do this, this will increase your drug epidemic. And, you know, that was very powerful for a little while. It became a battle between approaching this issue as one of compassion and medicine and approaching this issue as a matter of criminal justice.

Megan Kamerick: I’m Megan Kamerick, correspondent with New Mexico PBS and on-air host at KUNM radio and a former business reporter.

Andy Lyman: I’m Andy Lyman, reporter for New Mexico Political Report.

Megan Kamerick: I noticed as we had conversations about medical cannabis in the state that some people call it an industry, while others refer to it as a program.

Andy Lyman: Yeah, I noticed that too. Well, it can be viewed by many as a medical program. There’s definitely elements of what you might consider an industry. One thing for listeners who may not be familiar with the program/industry to keep in mind is that producers are required by the state to be nonprofit companies.

Megan Kamerick: But this is a new world to me. I was a business reporter and editor for 14 years. That was before cannabis became a significant sector in New Mexico. I’ve been astonished at the scope of this industry as we’ve put this podcast together and intrigued by the players on it. Over the next few months. We’ll introduce you to them as we explore how the cannabis industry started here and what it may look like in the coming months and years.

Andy Lyman: Today we are starting from the beginning, looking at how we got to where we are today. And that beginning was the creation of a medical cannabis program. Megan and I talked to a few people who had front row seats when the state passed what is now known as the Lynn and Erin compassionate use act. Dede Feldman was in New Mexico State Senator in 2007 when the legislature finally passed a bill approving medical cannabis. Feldman told us that the effort to convince lawmakers that cannabis could be legitimized as a form of medicine goes back to the late 70s.

Megan Kamerick: now many listeners may associate the origins of medical cannabis with our previous governor Gary Johnson, who made something of a name for himself as a libertarian pursuing fewer restrictions on the substance and the decriminalization of its use.

Andy Lyman: right. And Feldman told us these efforts predate Johnson’s term as governor.

Dede Feldman: Well, even before Gary Johnson, there was a bill in the New Mexico legislature in 1978, when a citizen by the name of Lynn Pierson, came to the legislature, he was a cancer patient. And he came at that early time to ask for a program to study the use of cannabis in alleviating suffering. And that finally passed. He died before he had a chance to take advantage of it. And then the funding ran out…

Andy Lyman: Feldman also wrote about Lynn Pierson in her book “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.” Pierson was a military veteran and cancer patient. Sort of flashing forward almost 30 years, Feldman wrote about how personal stories from Pierson and others seem to have a real impact on our colleagues, who were hesitant to say the least about legalization.

Megan Kamerick: You go into the stories they brought to the roundhouse. They’re pretty powerful.

Dede Feldman: Well, not only the stories were powerful, but their physical presence was very powerful because, you know, we could see them losing weight, year by year, and yet they were making the sacrifice to come there and testify and to wait in the gallery — you’ve been there, you know how frustrating it is — to wait in the gallery to see the committee hearing canceled, [music] to find out that your bill, just as when it was supposed to pass, will not be heard on the house floor because there is a dispute between the senate sponsor and the house speaker. Their perseverance, I think was acknowledged by the fact that when the bill and finally did pass, it was named the Erin Armstrong and Essie DeBonet medical marijuana bill.

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Andy Lyman: Erin Armstrong is an important name here. She was a young cancer patient, who at the time didn’t even use cannabis, but saw its usefulness and helping to alleviate symptoms of a number of conditions. Her mother, Debbie Armstrong, is currently a state representative. At the time Representative Armstrong was the secretary of aging and longtime services.

Debbie Armstrong: My daughter Erin, who is named in the act, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, is a cancer patient who was diagnosed when she was a teenager with thyroid cancer that had metastasized pretty extensively. She, from the day she was diagnosed, turned into a patient advocate. And when she was in college, she learned about the efforts to pass a medical cannabis program. I think there’d been a couple of years of trying to get it going by the time she got involved. But she became kind of a spokesperson about that, and is still quite an advocate. She worked on it for a number of years actually coming from she had moved to California coming back on her own time, as a volunteer to work on it the last few years, until it was finally passed.

Megan Kamerick: Erin was a particularly important advocate, because she upended the stereotypes many lawmakers had about who uses cannabis.

Erin Armstrong: I think I, you know, I was a young person with a lot of privilege that was able to leverage that privilege to get in front of them and disrupt those stereotypes and those notions, I was a young woman beginning my life in college, my mom at the time was the secretary of aging. And so, I think, knowing my mom also created an emotional link. And I wasn’t a stranger coming forward. I even though I didn’t know a lot of the legislators at the time, I think knowing that I was the daughter of someone that they worked with, and I think for the most part, respected was also useful, powerful. And I think I just was able to disrupt the narrative that they had in their own minds about who was using marijuana, who might need to use marijuana for medical reasons. And for whatever reason, I was able to tell a story that was persuasive that resonated that I think made it a little bit more personal, and made it more difficult for some of the opposition, at least to demonize me, you know, if not really hear me, I think it made it more difficult for opposition to really cast me in a certain light.

Megan Kamerick: Erin was diagnosed with cancer when she was young.

Erin Armstrong: I have been managing cancer for over 20 years now, when I was 17, I was a senior in high school at Santa Fe high living a pretty normal teenage existence. And there was a lump in my neck that had been there for many years. And we kept checking on it at the doctor’s office, but kept being told it was nothing to worry about. Until we made our way, a series of events in my life prompted us to ask more questions and look a little further and get a second opinion. And it turned out that it was a cancer  [♪ ♪] that is slowly growing throughout my body. And by the time we found it, it was in my lymph nodes, lungs, soft neck tissue, trachea, you know, it spread substantially.

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Erin Armstrong: At 17, my life was uprooted a bit, and it’s not exactly what I pictured of my late teenage years and early 20s. But that became very much a part of my identity and managing that disease became very much a part of my daily lived experience, so.

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Megan Kamerick: Erin lobbied the legislature for years before lawmakers started to come around to the positive impact cannabis can have. Although she didn’t even use cannabis at the time, Erin and a group of others basically forced legislators to face the types of people who found relief from things like nausea brought on by chemotherapy.

Erin Armstrong: but at that time, law enforcement was just rabid about this, though. I mean, we had president bush at the time send his white house drugs czar to our little state of New Mexico to testify against this medical marijuana bill. The sheriffs brought — Darren White at the time was the sheriff of Bernalillo County. He and other law enforcement officers would come to all of the hearings and be quite vocal. So, if you think about someone who is frail and currently using an illegal substance to treat their symptoms, to be able to stand up in that environment and tell that story honestly is incredibly intimidating. I didn’t at the time, have that fear. You know, I was able to stand up and honestly say I don’t need this right now. But I know that I might. And I know what it’s like to be desperate for something that works to manage symptoms when you’re managing chronic illness. And so I was really happy that I was able to contribute in that way.

Andy Lyman: Some listeners probably caught a familiar name their former Sheriff Darren White’s name will definitely come up again soon. But, I’ve witnessed firsthand a little of what Erin’s talking about there. I’ve spent enough time watching legislative hearings in Santa Fe to know that advocating for an issue, especially a personal one, can really take its toll. Committees almost never start on time and can go late into the night. Plus, advocates waiting to speak may wait all night just to be turned away. For Erin, it was no different.

Erin Armstrong: I just found the opposition pretty inhumane, and confusing. You know, everyone knows someone who’s been sick. And so, it seemed to me at the time, the opposition was certainly frustrating. At times, it was hurtful, felt deeply personal, you know, we had so many losses, before the win. So, there were a lot of tears shed over the bill by people who didn’t know they could afford to wait. So, the opposition felt personal and hurtful and frustrating for sure, as it was happening. And do I hold any animosity towards anyone who has since changed their mind? Absolutely not. It didn’t always even feel polite or respectful. There were some lawmakers that were really against this bill, really angry, I’m sure from a personal place in their lives. And that came across in some of our interactions. So, it was everything from disappointing to offensive and hurtful.

Andy Lyman: But, before Erin, there was Lynn Pierson. He was a Vietnam war veteran who was diagnosed with cancer and lobbied the legislature for a good 20 years before Erin started her battle with cancer and her fight with lawmakers. Pierson died in 1978.

Erin Armstrong: Yeah, unfortunately, I was never able to meet Lynn. He passed before we began this phase of the effort he passed away before even the 1970s research program was up and running. So, he never benefited from the program that he fought so hard to establish. So, we were fighting in his memory and his honor, I certainly felt sort of kinship and solidarity with him. As we were doing the work. He was not far from our thoughts, but I was never able to meet or know him.

Megan Kamerick: We also spoke to Erin about another woman who had a major impact on our current medical cannabis law.

(KOB-TV news clip)

KOB-TV Reporter 1: Medical marijuana users get another victory. One more condition has been added to the list of diseases that qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program. Austin reed is here to show us how supporters celebrated the decision today. Austin?

KOB-TV Reporter 2: Hi Antoinette. Well, if you have inflammatory auto immune mediated arthritis, you can now apply for a medical marijuana card right here in New Mexico. It is just one more condition added to the list which supporters say is just another step in the right direction.

Essie DeBonet: I have AIDS. 21 years. Been nauseous for the last 10. And it’s getting worse.

Megan Kamerick: That’s Essie DeBonet talking to KOB-TV back in 2010. Everyone we spoke to about Essie told us she was very influential and getting the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act passed in 2007. She was also the very first medical cannabis patient in New Mexico.

Andy Lyman: I happened to be neighbors with her sister who told me it would have been emotionally too much to talk to us about Essie. But she did offer us a written statement of sorts.

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Megan Kamerick: This is what Thea Buscarello, Essie’s sister sent us. Essie was a genius, she received an invitation from Mensa. And as happens with exceptional people, she was difficult. As her sister, I was in charge of every aspect of her life from her AIDS diagnosis to her death. As I remember what life was like then I also remember how difficult it was for me, and now believe she deserves better representation than I would be able to give.

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Erin Armstrong: She quite literally was fighting for her life. I mean, she honestly believed, and I believe also, needed cannabis to stay alive and to manage her condition and her illness and the side effects of the drugs that she had to take. And so, she would walk into the room looking quite frail. She was very small. She was much older than I was. And I think people mistakenly thought that she was going to be sort of a soft spoken, frail presence until she started telling her story…

Andy Lyman: This is probably a good time to remind listeners that people like Erin and Essie didn’t just show up to the roundhouse one year and get medical cannabis legalized.

Megan Kamerick: Yeah, Erin told us she was at this for a number of years before she saw what she called “cracks” in the armor of the opposition.

Andy Lyman: One thing that struck me was a story we heard from both Erin and her mom, Representative Debbie Armstrong, about one of the relationships Erin built with the spouse of then-state senator Tim Jennings.

Erin Armstrong: At the time that we were really working really hard to get this bill passed, senator Jennings’ wife, Patty Jennings, was also fighting her own battle with cancer. As everyone who knew her knows she was herself in her own right and incredible policy advocate, and had been advocating for years at the legislature for access to health care, access to health insurance, access to affordable insurance. And so she was a regular fixture at the roundhouse. And I was spending a lot of time at the roundhouse in those years. And so she and I met and forged a friendship and I think we’re going through something similar. For both of us, we’re fighting our own battles with cancer, and I think were able to relate to each other she was in incredibly kind, just such a warm, calming, kind, empowering presence for me at the legislative session, and then began to stand up and say, her own words in support of the medical marijuana bill. And I think that was incredibly powerful, because she, as I said, was in her own right an incredibly effective and known presence there, and also, was the partner of Senator Jennings. And so, she just carried enormous weights and legitimacy, had personal relationships with so many of the people taking the votes. She added something really special to the effort, and I’m forever grateful for that time with her and for the friendship that we’ve forged and remember her so fondly and miss her deeply.

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Andy Lyman: Her mom said that relationship between Erin and Patty Jennings not only led to the act being partially named after Erin, but more armor “cracks” as well.

Debbie Armstrong: And I mentioned Patty Jennings. Patty was, particularly when legislator would say, “what are you going to do about kids in the house, and you’ve got cannabis in there, and it’s illegal, and it’s going to hurt them? And you can’t have that around.” And she’d walk in, and she pulled out her big bottle of oxycontin or something, or morphine, or whatever it was. And she said, “I have kids in my house, and this could kill them. We have those conversations about what’s appropriate, and what’s not, and what’s for my health care, and it’s not just fun and games and recreation.” She said, “all of us have those conversations with our kids now, and we’ve got dangerous drugs in our house.” She was very, very powerful. And just want to give a shoutout to both of those brave women.

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Megan Kamerick: So, the bill passes. But as Dede Feldman points out, the shift to legalize medical cannabis was, and still is, a gradual process.

Dede Feldman: Well, you can never see it coming when you’re in the middle of it, although you got it, I mean, New Mexico is not an island, and the rest of the country has become far more accepting of these kind of societal, more liberal lifestyle, lifestyle changes. We’re much more traditional. We’re much more stuck in our own province here in New Mexico, we don’t adopt the latest trend very easily. And we don’t even do that when the polling data says there’s overwhelming support. It just takes a lot to make a cultural change. I think it’s a similar, although not as important, clearly, as gay marriage, same sex marriage. And you know, there was so much opposition to that. And then pressure had been building. Everybody knows somebody in their family, who’s gay, everybody knows somebody in their family that has had cancer, I would say. In that way, the pressure kept mounting, kept mounting, kept mounting, there was a sea change going on. The laws were not keeping up with it in any way and then [claps] boom! The dam burst. And that’s what happened, I think, with a supreme court decision and same sex marriage. That didn’t come out of nowhere. There had been advocacy that had been going on for 20 years. I think the same kind of thing is gonna happen with marijuana and has happened in other states. And i think nationally, it will happen as well.

Andy Lyman: I think Feldman’s take on this is pretty accurate, but also poignant as we look towards the next legislative session. Let’s not forget that views just in the past 10 years have changed significantly.

Megan Kamerick: It’s also important to remember that New Mexico has a long and tragic history of substance abuse. Heroin was a public health emergency here long before that became more common in other parts of the country. Drunk driving rates are off the charts here for years. And yet, Feldman says there was success with other public health initiatives like harm reduction, and needle exchange programs. So, there was some initial support for medical cannabis. But then law enforcement actively opposed it. The federal drug czar even warned in New Mexico not to pursue it. Why was this opposition so effective? Should holding it up?

Dede Feldman: Well, first of all, let me just balance the scales a little bit, because before the law enforcement entered, entered the picture in the legislature anyway, you had a very progressive department of health. The first year I came to the legislature was 1997. And that was a year I was proud of in terms of public health. Because that year, we passed what is called a harm reduction bill. And a harm reduction bill sometimes is called allowing for needle exchange. You know, this is about drug use. And New Mexico has had a very bad history of heroin addiction, especially in northern New Mexico. It was rampant. At the time we were debating medical marijuana during the late 90s, and the early aughts, I guess you would say, the department of health had a progressive view toward it, which is “we can’t stamp this out, we’re not going to be able to stamp it out. The best we can do is to prevent people from getting hepatitis c by exchanging dirty needles.” And that was a halfway measure. It’s an incremental step. But it’s sort of interesting to me that that we enjoyed widespread support amongst the legislature, and also the department of health, which was under a republican administration. But at that time was, the secretary was Alex Valdez, who later became the head of St. Vincent’s, or I guess it’s called Cristus St. Vincent’s now. He got it, the Department of Health had a strong public health orientation. That set the floor under which all of these medical marijuana proposals became proposals in the legislature from around 2000 to its final passage in 2007. You would have the department of health on the one side, and then you would have the criminal justice folks from the federal agencies, at that time was president bush, that came to New Mexico to testify and say, “this is against federal law, you can do this, this will increase your drug epidemic.” You know, that was very powerful for a little while. But then finally, I mean, as time went on, it became a battle between approaching this issue as one of compassion and medicine, and approaching this issue as a matter of criminal justice. Legislators want to believe that they can alleviate suffering, and they want to respond to the personal stories that they heard of people who had cancer, or who had aids, and said that, you know, marijuana alleviated their suffering. Didn’t cure anything, but alleviated their suffering. The drugs czars that came in to testify before the judiciary committees kind of overplayed their hand, because they then began to criticize the people like Erin Armstrong, Essie DeBonet, who both of them were ravaged by disease, but they kept coming back to the legislature year after year asking for that. And then the drugs czars came in. And they said these people are being used these people don’t know what they’re talking about.

Megan Kamerick: We mentioned before that Erin Armstrong was not a medical cannabis patient while she was pushing for the law change. But now, after a pretty bad turn, health wise, she decided to start using it.

Erin Armstrong: Like I said in late 2018, my own diagnosis took a turn and I’m now dealing with a much more aggressive cancer and a whole set of side effects and symptoms that I am now managing for the first time. And so, I did get my card, which was a cool experience. You know, it was it felt really, I felt really proud to get that card and to revisit memories related to this effort and reflect on how many people have benefited since and now be one of them. It feels like full circle in a bittersweet way. For me, I found it helpful and, and to be honest, I’m still learning. You know, I still feel like I’m sure it could do even more for me that I haven’t discovered yet. But, so far I’ve used it to manage nausea, to stimulate some appetite. At times when you know, after my first — I’ve had three craniotomies in the last year and a half, and after, after each one, I’ve lost an incredible amount of weight, I mean, just wasted in a matter of weeks. I’ve, you know, 20-30 pounds.

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Erin Armstrong: So, getting my weight back on has been important and so I used it to try to stimulate appetite, used to try to manage nausea when I’ve been experiencing that. I’ve also used it to try to help as a sleep aid, as a mild sleep aid not wanting to take drugs that create more side effects of serious grogginess and things too, but also really struggling to sleep but either because of fear that I was struggling with or the side effects of medications that wouldn’t allow me to sleep.

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Megan Kamerick: So, that brings us to the current situation here in New Mexico, there are plenty of questions and hurdles to overcome if our state is going to legalize cannabis. We’ll be diving into those issues in the coming weeks here on the podcast. Thank you to everyone we spoke with and a special thanks to Erin Armstrong for sharing her personal journey. By the way, you probably noticed that people used “cannabis” and “marijuana” when talking about this plant. But we made a very deliberate decision to use the word “cannabis.” and that was another thing I learned is that “marijuana” is a word with a lot of problematic historical baggage.

Andy Lyman: And that’s something you’ll hear more about in the next episode.

Javier Martinez: What equity would look for me is where we can ensure that everybody has equal footing and the same starting place as this industry develops. What we’ve seen in other states is you’ve had folks who are not from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, right? They’re not African American. They’re not Latino, they’re not Native American. They’re not mixed American and to me, that’s a problem.

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Andy Lyman: Growing Forward as a partnership between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.

Megan Kamerick: Thank you to our producers Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Our music is composed by Poddington Bear and Christian Bjoerklund. Be sure to subscribe to Growing Forward today wherever you get your podcasts. You can also catch up on past episodes by heading to and searching for “Growing Forward.” Join us next week to hear about the dynamics of legalization.

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(music fades)