A group tasked with creating a proposal to legalize cannabis in New Mexico met for the second time to discuss specifics of licensing and regulation as well as how to maintain a medical cannabis program.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Working Group on Marijuana Legalization met for more than five hours on Wednesday and heard from a couple dozen members of the public.
This is for the naysayers
Pushes for cannabis legalization in the Legislature are nothing new. For years there have been attempts to legalize cannabis by changing the state constitution, as constitutional amendments do not require approval by the governor, and former Gov. Susana Martinez vocally opposed the idea. But the last legislative session showed increased signs of success for proponents. Two different bills, one that pushed for state-run stores and sponsored by Senate Republicans and another without a state-run store provision, saw increased support.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a legalization bill in the House and he is now a member of the working group. Martinez said he thinks the group’s “cognitive diversity” will help convince lawmakers who are against legalization, but still open to the idea.
“I think that out of this process will emerge consensus across the board,” Martinez said.
The New Mexico Department of Health on Friday heard public testimony from medical cannabis patients, patient advocates and cannabis producers about proposed changes to the Medical Cannabis Program. More than 30 people shared their thoughts about a new proposed plant limit, increased producer fees and extending the life of patients’ medical cannabis cards.
While almost all of the speakers addressed the specific rule changes, many also brought up a barrage of other issues like oversight of those who hold a Personal Production License and grow their own cannabis, opening the licensure for more producers and more testing of cannabis for contaminants or pesticides.
The divergence from issues published in the proposed rule change seemed to show that some in the medical cannabis community don’t feel like they are being heard by the Department of Health.
Former Department of Health chief records officer Daniel Jacobs told NM Political Report that previous department leadership is partly to blame. Jacobs retired from DOH shortly after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office. He said throughout the eight years of Susana Martinez’s time as governor, the Medical Cannabis Program and DOH shut itself off from the public.
“For the last nine years we’ve been under an administration of exclusion,” Jacobs said. “We [now] have a governor who is about inclusion and she’s going to move the state forward and the program forward to benefit everybody, not just a select few.”
Jacobs said he was recruited to work in the department by then-cabinet secretary Lujan Grisham under then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
Medical Cannabis Program Director Kenny Vigil said DOH and Medical Cannabis Program staff hear from patients about twice a year when the board meets to discuss adding qualifying conditions to the program.
“One of the things we can certainly do better at is improving dialogue with patients,” Vigil said.
Since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a task force to study possible cannabis legalization measures last month, some in the medical cannabis community expressed concerns about proper representation.
The Cannabis Legalization Working Group, the governor’s office said, will work this year and send their recommendations to Lujan Grisham before next year’s 30-day legislative session. Lujan Grisham announced earlier this year that she would add legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use to the call next year. In even numbered years, all legislation related to budgetary matters are considered “germane”, but the governor can give permission for legislators to discuss other issues.
Some medical cannabis patients and patient advocates have long warned lawmakers of passing legalization proposals that might harm the medical cannabis program. Now, at least one patient and even medical cannabis producers are scratching their heads wondering why the Cannabis Legalization Working Group does not include actual patients.
Patients want a seat at the table
Ginger Grider is a medical cannabis patient and works with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance. Grider, who lives in Portales, said rural parts of the state regularly see shortages or outages in local dispensaries.
As expected, the head of New Mexico’s Department of Health approved opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition to use medical cannabis. In an announcement on Thursday, DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel said she accepted a recommendation from the state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to include opioid use disorder and five other conditions as reasons to grant a medical card for medical cannabis use. “Adding these conditions to the Medical Cannabis Program provides medical providers new tools for relieving symptoms that may otherwise be difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to relieve through conventional means,” Kunkel said in a statement. “Thousands of New Mexicans may find relief from their symptoms through medical cannabis that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Kunkel also approved Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorder and three degenerative neurological disorders—Friedreich’s ataxia, Lewy body disease, and spinal muscular atrophy. The approval of those six conditions is the latest change in the Medical Cannabis Program since the change in administrations.
The New Mexico Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of measles in nearly five years. Last week, DOH said a one-year-old child from Sierra County is the first New Mexican infected with the disease since December of 2014. “We have worked with the clinic that treated the child and the patient’s family to identify people who may have been exposed so we can prevent more cases of the disease,” DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel announced Friday. “We encourage everyone to check whether you and your family have been vaccinated to protect against measles. Immunization is the best tool we have to protect people from measles.”
Measles is highly infectious and was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, thanks to the development of a vaccine in the 1960s and a concerted effort by the Centers for Disease Control beginning in the late 1970s.
The New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) has until August to decide how much medical cannabis producers are allowed to grow at any given time. Until recently, Licensed Non-Profit Producers (LNPP) could have up to 450 plants, but in March the state issued an emergency rule allowing producers to grow five times that amount—or up to 2,500 plants—after a drawn-out lawsuit. Public records obtained by NM Political Report reveal some of the discussions between producers, patients and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office during the days leading up to the emergency rule. Many of those conversations were redacted due to executive and attorney-client privilege. But, the documents still shed light on the decision by DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel to temporarily increase the plant counts.
A medical advisory panel on Friday said, for the third time, opioid use disorder should be a qualifying condition for medical cannabis—but this time the cabinet secretary tasked with final approval is expected to agree. The New Mexico Medical Cannabis Advisory Board voted unanimously to add opioid addiction to the list of 22 conditions already allowed. Only four other states allow patients to use cannabis to help alleviate symptoms of opioid use disorder. Dr. Laura Brown, the board’s chair, signaled that the Department of Health is changing course when it comes to medical cannabis under newly appointed Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel. A Medical Cannabis Advisory Board meeting on March 29, 2019.