Greg Vialpando, a Santa Fe auto mechanic who has been on disability aid since he injured his back on the job more than 15 years ago, says the opiates that doctors prescribed him nearly ruined his life.
He shook as he stood up Wednesday, supporting himself with a cane to tell his story to a legislative committee.
Having gone through eight back surgeries since his accident, he’s been prescribed a variety of narcotics through the years. All they did was cause problems — sleep apnea, vitamin D deficiency, loss of appetite, depression — without easing his chronic pain.
He said that changed in 2013 when he decided he was no longer going to use opiates and instead try medical marijuana, which he gets legally through the state’s Medical Cannabis Program.
“He has his life back,” said Vialpando’s wife, Margaret Vialpando.
The Vialpandos told their story to the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering a bill that states insurance companies that handle workers’ compensation claims would not be required to reimburse patients for medical marijuana.
Former state electrical inspector David Staszewski has a similar story. He suffered a cut spinal cord injury and now uses a prescribed regimen of opiates and marijuana salves and tinctures to ease his pain.
“Please don’t allow this harmful bill to pass,” Greg Vialpando pleaded.
The committee voted along party lines to approve House Bill 195, sponsored by Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis. However, three of the seven Republicans who voted for it said they were moved by Vialpando and Staszewski’s testimony and might change their vote when the bill is heard by the full House.
“It hurts my heart to vote for this,” said Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque. “I’m voting for it now, but I might not vote for it on the floor.”
Albuquerque Republicans Nate Gentry and Jim Dines made similar statements.
Crowder, as well as several lobbyists and representatives of the insurance industry and other business groups, said the main reason they support the bill is because — despite the state’s medical marijuana program and despite three Appeals Court decisions that said insurance companies must reimburse medical marijuana patients in workers’ compensation cases — there is a fear that insurance companies would be criminally liable.
Crowder said he recently met with representatives from four major insurance companies who said there’s a danger that companies would pull out of New Mexico if the bill isn’t passed.
Quinn Lopez, general counsel for New Mexico Mutual, which handles the state’s workers’ comp program, said there is a real possibility that insurance companies could be charged with aiding and abetting a crime if the federal government reverses its current policy against cracking down on states with medical marijuana.
But Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, scoffed at the idea that insurance companies would be criminally liable for sending reimbursement checks to medical marijuana patients. He also pointed out that Congress for two years in a row had clauses in the federal budget act forbidding the government from spending any money to enforce drug laws against states with medical marijuana programs.
He also spoke of a recent federal court opinion in Northern California that said the language in the budget bill bars the U.S. Justice Department from interfering with that state’s medical marijuana program.
“This bill is not necessary, and real people will suffer,” Egolf said. “A federal judge and federal law 100 percent contradicts the claim that companies are criminally liable” for reimbursing patients for marijuana.
Dines, Gentry and Pacheco said they will read that California decision before the bill is debated by the full House. “That will be a linchpin in my final decision,” Dines said, referring to his final vote on the House floor.