By

Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

100% of reader revenue goes to the local. independent journalists bringing you the news.

The medical marijuana revolution in New Mexico began 40 years ago with a cancer patient named Lynn Pierson, a Vietnam war veteran who spearheaded the enactment of the first medical marijuana law in the nation on Feb. 21, 1978.  The campaign to demonize the herb had left most Americans believing that marijuana was a dangerous substance that deserved to be illegal. Pierson was losing his battle with testicular cancer and found the chemotherapy “cure” worse than the disease.

Because of the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy, Pierson told his oncologist he wanted to stop the treatment. His doctor shocked Pierson when he asked if he had tried marijuana. Articles written in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1975 about the benefits of cannabis in the treatment of the side effects of cancer chemotherapy, had convinced some oncologists their patients had nothing to lose by trying the illegal substance.

Pierson took his doctor’s advice and was amazed by the outcome. “It was a miracle. A few puffs of pot took nausea away. And there was hardly any vomiting. Then I got really hungry. Hell, I ate so much I actually gained some weight,” Pierson would say.

A friend of Pierson’s, an older patient, would not try marijuana because of its illegality. After his friend died a horrible death, Pierson vowed he would not let that happen to others. He contacted Robert Randall, a glaucoma patient who had forced the government to give him federal supplies of marijuana in 1976 as the result of a successful court case—making Randall the nation’s only legal marijuana patient.

Pierson had something that Randall, a resident of the District of Columbia, did not have—a State Legislature. Randall encouraged Pierson to approach New Mexico’s State Legislature.  Pierson began his mission with a passion and lobbied all 96 members of New Mexico’s House of Representatives. He recruited the press to help him publicize what he was doing and was able to rally the help of other patients. The folks in Washington, D.C. heard of the uprising, as legislative committees began exploring ways to get marijuana supplies to cancer patients. The Feds cautioned that their actions were potentially in violation of federal law. Their strong-arm tactics did not sit well with the citizens of New Mexico.

Members of the State Legislature came up with a way the feds—who were constantly pointing to the lack of research—could not deny. New Mexican legislators wanted to establish a statewide program of research, using federal supplies of marijuana to treat cancer and glaucoma patients. The result was known as the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, which allowed the use of cannabis through a research program by the Food and Drug Administration, using cannabis supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The bill was signed as “emergency legislation” by New Mexico Governor Jerry Apodaca on Feb. 21, 1978, after being passed by overwhelming margins (53-9 in the House, 33-1 in the Senate). The feds blocked the state’s program, despite Apodaca’s proclamation of an emergency. Lynn Pierson never benefited from the legislation and died in August 1978 without ever receiving legal supplies of cannabis.

But In 2007 the Land of Enchantment showed it hadn’t forgotten Pierson by once again legalizing medical marijuana access, but this time using state-grown marijuana to dodge federal oversight. The legislation, “The Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act,” recognized both Pierson and another young cancer patient, Erin Armstrong, who picked up the legalization torch in this century.

Erin Armstrong didn’t even use cannabis, but saw its usefulness and help in alleviating symptoms of a number of conditions. At the time Armstrong began advocating for medical cannabis, her mother, Debbie Armstrong, was the secretary of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department. She is currently a state representative and was instrumental in passing HB 47, the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act, giving terminally ill but mentally competent New Mexicans the option to choose medical aid-in-dying at the end of life.

Erin Armstrong was diagnosed as a teenager with thyroid cancer that had metastasized. She became a patient advocate for medical cannabis the day she was diagnosed and eventually became a spokesperson for the movement, upending the stereotypes many lawmakers had about who uses cannabis. “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 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,” Armstrong told PBS in an interview.

Armstrong has been managing cancer for over 20 years now. When her cancer was originally found at the age of 17, it was in her lymph nodes, lungs, soft neck tissue, trachea. She 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. “I was able to stand up and honestly say I don’t need this right now. But I know that I might,” Erin explained. She found the opposition “pretty inhumane, and confusing. … There were a lot of tears shed over the bill by people who didn’t know if they could afford to wait.”

Up until 2018 Armstrong worked as a reproductive rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union and spent time in Africa helping AIDS patients receive care. Since then Erin has been dealing with a more aggressive cancer and its side effects and symptoms. She finally got her medical marijuana card. “I am 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. I’ve used it to manage nausea, to stimulate some appetite and as a sleep aid. My prognosis is pretty poor, unfortunately; but I’m determined to live as fully as I can for as long as I can,” Armstrong said.

Like this story? Hate it? Share it and add your comments.