Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, poised to sign a bill making New Mexico the 12th state to legalize medical marijuana, said Thursday he realizes his action could become an issue in the presidential race.
"So what if it's risky? It's the right thing to do," said Richardson, one of the candidates in the crowded 2008 field. "What we're talking about is 160 people in deep pain. It only affects them."
The legislation would create a program under which some patients - with a doctor's recommendation - could use marijuana provided by the state health department. Lawmakers approved the bill Wednesday. The governor is expected to sign it in the next few weeks.
The proposal and the presidency
Richardson has supported the proposal since he first ran in 2002. But he pushed especially hard for it this year, leaning on some Democrats to change their votes after the bill initially failed.
"Give him credit. It's not something you do because you're going to garner great political support for it. It is a bit controversial," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. By the same token, Mann says, it is not likely to hurt him in the Democratic contests.
"If he were to surprise us all and actually win the Democratic nomination, he's got an interesting mix of positions" that would not be undercut by his support of medical marijuana, Mann said.
"It's an interesting risk," added Lonna Atkeson, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. "I'm somewhat surprised, because I think he's sort of cautious, usually."
A majority of the states that have legalized medical marijuana are in the West, and Atkeson suggested his position could play well in the region. But it could also give Richardson's rivals a potential issue to focus on.
'My God, let's be reasonable'
Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico said Richardson will be the first presidential candidate ever to advocate medical marijuana "by vocally supporting and signing legislation."
In signing the measure, Richardson "will be sending a strong message that states can and should exercise their right to do what is in the best interest of their citizens free from intrusion from the Federal government," said Reena Szczepanski of the advocacy group.
Richardson said he has been asked about the issue by only a few voters while campaigning in Iowa. He said the White House had urged him not to sign the bill.
"I don't see it as being a big issue," he said. "This is for medicinal purpose, for ... people that are suffering. My God, let's be reasonable," he said.
The federal government declares marijuana an illegal controlled substance with no medical value.
A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled on Wednesday that a woman whose doctor says marijuana is the only medicine keeping her alive can face federal prosecution on drug charges.
The Supreme Court ruled against the woman two years ago, saying medical marijuana users and their suppliers could be prosecuted for breaching federal drug laws even if they lived in a state such as California where medical pot is legal.