October 28, 2019

Legislators could strip school districts of discretion over medical cannabis in schools

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Matthew Reichbach

Some state lawmakers are ready to remove school districts’ discretion over how medical cannabis is administered to students who are medical cannabis patients. 

The issue of how and when approved students can get their medicine has been divisive and controversial at times. But this year New Mexico became one of about a dozen states to allow some students to consume cannabis at school. Unlike other states, New Mexico’s law left some decisionmaking up to school districts. That local control has stirred additional controversy and caused some confusion amongst lawmakers. Some of those lawmakers say school districts abused that privilege. 

State law allows districts to come up with their own policies for medical cannabis, including limitations on who administers the medical cannabis. Districts in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Estancia only allow parents or guardians to dose their respective student. The law also allows for schools to apply for an exception to allowing medical cannabis on campus if the school district is concerned with losing federal funding, as cannabis is still federally illegal. According to a representative from the state Public Education Department who addressed an interim legislative panel last week, no schools in New Mexico have applied to opt out. Further, PED said, there has been no reports of federal funds threatened in any of the other states that now let students use medical cannabis on school grounds.

‘They’ve done the opposite of the right thing’ 

During the 2019 legislative session, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D- Albuquerque, sponsored one of the bills to allow medical cannabis in public schools. The bill allowed schools the option of getting  an exception from PED if the district was concerned about the loss of federal funding. The bill also allowed schools some flexibility in how students are given their medical cannabis. Now, Candelaria said, he plans to introduce legislation that would ultimately strip school districts’ discretion. 

“We do enabling legislation and it’s up to the districts to do the right thing, and in this instance they’ve done the opposite of the right thing,” he said. “They’ve abused their authority and discretion to deny kids an education, period.”

Candelaria points to school districts in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Estancia as examples of schools that have policies prohibiting any school employees from administering medical cannabis. Neither PED or the state’s Department of Health actively track specific age ranges of medical cannabis patients, but there are a little more than 200 cannabis patients who are minors. 

Confusion over policies

In addition to hearing from PED and the Department of Health last week, the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee heard from Tisha Brick, who has been pushing lawmakers and school officials to allow her son Anthony to use his medical cannabis at school in Estancia. 

Brick pleaded with members of the committee and PED to do something to help get her son back in school. During that meeting, there seemed to be confusion among committee members about why Estancia Public Schools would still not let Brick’s son in school. 

Advisory committee member, Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, asked Brick about her ability to show up to school and administer her son’s medicine. 

“So the one change that has benefited you, for lack of a better…is that you can now do it on school grounds as opposed to…,” Thomson started. 

Brick nodded her head, “no.”

“Not even that?” Thomson clarified. 

“No,” Brick said. 

Brick clarified. 

“With all due respect, although the wording of that statute does say that parents can come give medical cannabis on school grounds, that does not mean a school district can or will allow [it],” she said. 

But it turns out, Estancia Public Schools does have a policy in place for medical cannabis. Like Rio Rancho and Albuquerque school districts, Estancia requires a parent or guardian to administer medical cannabis. 

But Brick said she doesn’t trust the school district. Brick’s distrust of the school district goes back to the previous superintendent who would not allow Brick’s son to use cannabis on school grounds before the new law went into effect. Brick then took the district to federal court where a judge dismissed many of her claims, but the case is still pending. Now the district has a new superintendent, Dr. Cindy Sims, but Brick said she doesn’t think things will change. Brick provided NM Political Report with an email exchange between herself and Estancia school officials. The email, Brick said, showed that Sims was uninterested to meet with her to discuss the issue. 

In July 2019, an Estancia Schools staff member emailed Brick and Sims with a list of potential meeting dates to discuss her son’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) so he could start going back to school. In response, Sims said she wouldn’t be there unless specifically requested. 

“Ugh,” Sims wrote. “Forward it to Evelyn, please. Unless she directs me to, there is no reason for me to be there outside of possibly reviewing the Medical Administration Policy. I am having a glass of wine myself.”

NM Political Report emailed Sims and asked about the district’s policy and her email comments. She expressed regret for letting her frustration get the best of her. 

“In regard to my email, I was responding to the email conversation via phone to comments that are omitted from the chain you have provided,” Sims said. “My frustration to those comments show, and should have remained private. I would never want to conduct myself in a manner that would bring embarrassment to the district, and should have kept my frustration to myself, and not be provoked as I was.”

And, she said, Estancia Public Schools does in fact have a policy for medical cannabis in schools. 

“The district adopted an administration of medical cannabis policy and stand ready to serve the needs of any student according to that policy,” Sims wrote. “The policy is on the district website.”

But even with a policy in place, Brick would still need to go to her son’s school each time he needs to be dosed with an oral version of cannabis, and he takes it on-demand. 

“Anthony takes his medical cannabis in moments of mental health crisis where he has lost control and can’t be de-escalated,” Brick said. 

If she were to get a job or go to school in Albuquerque it would take her about an hour to get to her son at school and by then, she said, police or even child protective services might already be involved. 

It’s still too early to tell what issues, besides budgetary ones, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will allow to be discussed during the next legislature. But previous events point to cannabis being a major topic during the upcoming 30-day session. 

Last year, for example, she announced she would ask the Legislature to look at legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use. Plus, a change in the medical cannabis law allowed non-residents of New Mexico a chance at becoming medical cannabis patients under the state’s program. Both the governor’s office and DOH are taking the issue to the state Court of Appeals in an attempt to overturn a state district court judge’s ruling that the state must allow any person who qualifies to get a medical cannabis patient card, regardless of their address.

Clarification: A previous version of this story said a judge dismissed Tisha Brick’s legal claims. While a judge did dismiss many of her claims, Brick’s civil suit is still pending.