July 24, 2019

Should the state increase regulation of homegrown medical cannabis?

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During a New Mexico Department of Health public hearing earlier this month that allowed public input into proposed rule changes to the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, a major player in the industry raised concerns with some patients. 

Willie Ford, managing director of the medical cannabis consulting company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, told DOH officials he wanted more state oversight of patients who grow their own cannabis.   

“PPLs need more regulation, they need more oversight for public safety issues,” Ford said. “These are significant and serious issues that affect the general public and their safety.”

PPLs, or Personal Production Licenses, allow patients who qualify to grow up to four plants for their own use. He voice concern with a proposed rule change that would allow PPL holders to take their harvested cannabis to licensed manufacturers to produce extracts and concentrates. Four plants, Ford said, could equal about 20 pounds a year per PPL. 

Ford’s comments, and the online rebuttals from PPL patients that came after, highlight an issue that DOH will likely be forced to address, especially before New Mexico legalizes cannabis for recreational use: whether PPL patients should be regulated similar to Licensed Non-Profit Producers who sell products through their dispensaries. 

Josh McCurdy with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance told NM Political Report that he didn’t appreciate the suggestion that PPL patients are doing anything other than growing their own medicine, often in places where dispensaries are far and few between. 

“We need more competition,” McCurdy, who lives and grows his own cannabis in Ruidoso, said. “That’s the reason it’s $10 a gram in Albuquerque and it goes from $12 to $15 in rural areas.”

He estimated his homegrown cannabis costs about $5 to $6 a gram to grow. 

McCurdy disagreed with Ford’s claim that four plants harvested around 4 to five times a year could yield about 20 pounds. 

“I’ve been by a few hundred PPL grows in this state and 99 percent of them are struggling just to yield a couple of ounces every four months,” McCurdy said. 

McCurdy dismissed a common sentiment he said he’s heard from producers—that home growers contribute to illegal cannabis sales. 

“The producers have put it in a way, where they like to do some fear mongering and act like the PPLs are the illicit black market,” McCurdy said. “But when it all comes down to it, the illicit black market comes from California, Colorado and Oregon.”

The three states are among the 11 (plus Washington D.C.) that have legalized recreational cannabis.

Oregon in particular has recently seen a surplus of cannabis since the state legalized recreational use, prompting lawmakers there to try and limit the number of producers. A recent study found that between 2015 and 2018 more than 14,000 pounds of cannabis seized by police was headed out of Oregon to 37 other states around the U.S. 

Ford told NM Political Report his estimate of 20 pounds was based on what growers could do with four plants and not what home growers are actually producing. 

“Maybe not everybody can grow that well, but that is the potential,” Ford said. 

Ford said more regulation from the state and requiring reports from PPL patients would give DOH an idea of how much medical cannabis each of the more-than-8,000 PPL patients are growing. PPL holders are not currently required to report their yields. Ford added that PPL patients could be potentially afforded more cannabis than patients with a standard medical card. State law limits patient purchases to about eight ounces of “dried flower product” over a rolling 90 day period. Theoretically, Ford said, PPL holders could go beyond that limit with their harvests.  

“[Patients] should be able to possess the same amount,” Ford said. “The misconception is that we’re saying PPLs should be restricted to possession levels that are lower.”  

Ford also said he is worried PPL patients could get a bad name if the program is not properly monitored. 

“It’s not the PPLs I have concerns with,” Ford said. “It’s the people operating outside the law who are able to do so under the guise of being a PPL. That’s really dangerous to PPLs and a couple of bad apples can bring the whole system down and ruin it for everyone.”

Ford said he’s worried those bad apples will give more weight to arguments from naysayers who want the PPL program to be completely eradicated.  

“People get upset because they’re PPLs and they want freedom and I get it. But we want good regulation for PPLs to protect them from people who are going to say that PPLs are out of control,” Ford said. 

Chad Lozano, also with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance, doesn’t buy Ford’s story and said each PPL grower found to be breaking the law should be individually punished.  

“The only ones who will be an issue shouldn’t be in the program in the first place, and the DOH will ensure that happens if that’s the case,” Lozano said.

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said his organization—which counts more than two dozen New Mexico producers as members — values PPLs and agrees with Ford that more regulation will help the Medical Cannabis Program overall. 

“The viewpoint for the Cannabis Chamber is that PPLs are important to patients and an absolutely critical part of the medical program. It’s also important to keep patients safe and to prevent diversion,” Lewinger said. “Somehow plants should be accounted for.”

DOH spokesman David Morgan told NM Political Report if, how or when the PPL program may change. 

“The DOH’s Medical Cannabis Program hasn’t started working on the next round of rule changes. However, the agency has taken note of both PPL feedback as well as all other feedback from the July 12 hearing for future consideration,” Morgan said. 

McCurdy said there’s still one thing producers can’t beat over his plants. The price,” McCurdy said. “I can beat the price at any dispensary or even the black market if I grow my own. I can grow for me.”