March 28, 2019

Board to look at possible big changes to medical cannabis program

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Photo Credit: ChelseyHerba Flickr via Compfight cc

A series of possible changes to the Medical Cannabis Program could take place in New Mexico, pending a signature from the governor and decisions from the state Department of Health. DOH officials are in a holding pattern of sorts, waiting for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to decide whether or not to sign a key medical cannabis bill and to hear recommendations from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board regarding what conditions qualify for medical cannabis use.

Update: Medical panel approves opioid use disorder for cannabis, DOH expected to approve

Lujan Grisham has until the end of next week to decide on Senate Bill 406, which would  clarify the state’s medical cannabis law. But on Friday a medical panel will hear what the public wants when it comes to expanding qualifying conditions.

Public Petitions

The Drug Policy Alliance and other groups have long proposed that medical cannabis may help combat Opioid Use Disorder or severe addiction to opioids, which has been a problem in New Mexico for decades.

Former department secretary Lynn Gallagher repeatedly denied suggestions from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to include opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis use. Now, with a new governor, a new department secretary, Kathyleen Kunkel, and a new petition, opioid addiction could finally be added to the list.

The board will review three different petitions suggesting that cannabis can help alleviate the physical and psychological symptoms of trying to kick opioids during a meeting on Friday. One of those petitions also includes alcohol, tobacco, stimulant and hallucinogen use disorders as conditions. Patient rights activist group, Safe Access New Mexico submitted 68 pages of arguments and research to back up their claim that cannabis can help alleviate symptoms of substance abuse disorder.

According to Medical Cannabis Advisory Board minutes from September 2017, the board’s chair, Dr. Laura Brown was frustrated with Gallagher for repeatedly ignoring recommendations to add opioid use disorder and waiting almost seven months to issue her decision in one case.

“There is no meaningful dialogue between [Gallagher] and the MCAB,” the minutes cited Brown as saying. “Rather than engage directly with the MCAB regarding its recommendations, it appears that [Gallagher] has recruited NMDOH physicians to research and refute MCAB medical qualifying condition recommendations.”

Brown was likely referring to when, in early 2018, Gallagher convened a makeshift research team of DOH physicians to research the use of medical cannabis for opioid addiction after the advisory board already recommended it. That group’s findings were highly critical of using cannabis to help relieve the side effects of opioid use disorder and Gallagher ultimately rejected the board’s recommendation.  

The board will also consider a petition that suggests roughly 15 percent of New Mexicans are afflicted with a condition that would qualify for medical cannabis use: being 65 years old or older. The petitioner, who’s name was redacted by DOH, argued medical cannabis would help get through the aging process.

The petitioner listed symptoms that cannabis could help with, including migraines, arthritis and general aches and pains. The petitioner said if being 65 years old or older were a qualifying condition, applicants wouldn’t need to get a doctor’s recommendation every year.

“I don’t think this condition, ‘senior 65 +’ would need to be renewed every year since a cure for increased age is not yet discovered, in the testing phase, nor approved by the FDA,” the person wrote.

Two other petitions ask the advisory board to give its blessing on issues involving plant integrity and allowing patients who grow their own cannabis a chance at turning their plants into extracts or derivatives.

A petition for “Chemically Untainted (Non-toxic) Medical Cannabis Supply Chain” asks the advisory board to make sure medical cannabis growers provide an adequate supply of pesticide-free medical cannabis ahead of the “impending transition to what appears to be the adoption of recreational Cannabis.”

Legislation to legalize recreational marijuana failed in this year’s session, but even opponents have acknowledged in recent years that its legalization in New Mexico is inevitable.

A cannabis manufacturer also filed a petition asking the advisory board to support a change to the medical cannabis program to allow patients with Personal Production Licenses (which allows these patients to grow their own cannabis) to take their harvested cannabis to a licensed manufacturer to be processed into an edible product or an extract. People’s Manufacturing, LLC filed the petition and said they do not plan on selling or growing cannabis, but only offering a service to patients who grow their own plants. In its petition, People’s Manufacturing said there are already cannabis producers who offer cooking and extraction classes for those who grow their own cannabis without state oversight. By allowing state regulated manufacturing opportunities for those with a Personal Production License, People’s Manufacturing wrote, DOH would provide “safe access to self-produced cannabis” and “custom and affordable medication” for personal growers.

One issue not scheduled for Friday’s meeting is plant counts.

After a months-long legal battle, DOH last year, then under the previous secretary, was ordered by a state district judge to come up with a data-driven and justified amount of plants a cannabis producer can grow. Hours ahead of the deadline, the department came up with a temporary 2,500 plant cap for producers. The department is expected to hold a public meeting before the end of the year to produce a more permanent number.

And for the governor

The changes being proposed to the advisory board would still need final approval from Kunkel. And any changes to the program by DOH could be changed or repealed by the department in the future. But there are still some proposed changes on the governor’s desk that could make a big impact on the program. Those proposals sent to Lujan Grisham would literally take an act of the Legislature to change or repeal.

One sweeping change is SB 406,  which would not only shore up some definitions for things like “manufactures” and “couriers,” but would also allow certain establishments to open “consumption areas” for patients. The bill would also allow personal growers to take their cannabis to manufacturers for extraction.

Another bill would lengthen the renewal period for medical patient cards to three years, assuming each patient checks in with a physician yearly.

If signed into law, those changes would provide more work for the department, since changing definitions in statute and creating consumption areas would require DOH and the Medical Cannabis Program to promulgate rules—which means more public meetings.

The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board meets Friday at 10:00 a.m. in the Harold Runnels Building in Santa Fe.