A prominent Albuquerque medical cannabis producer will not have to shut its doors next week during what he says is one of his busiest days of the year. This comes after Santa Fe Judge David Thompson ruled Monday that Ultra Health must pay a $100 fine for bringing a cannabis seedling plant to the New Mexico State Fair last year. But Ultra Health will not have to close down for five days, as the state originally ordered to punish the medical cannabis producer for putting the plant on public display. The ruling comes after a nearly seven-month long legal battle between the company and the New Mexico Department of Health. Ultra Health brought a non flowering cannabis plant to the New Mexico State Fair in September 2016 and was quickly told to remove it by fair officials.
A New Mexico state agency and a medical cannabis company argued in a state district court Monday morning whether the state’s punishment of the company was warranted. Santa Fe District Court Judge David Thompson heard from both the state’s Department of Health (DOH) and a lawyer representing medical cannabis producer New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health about whether the company will have to shut down retail operations for five days later this month. The department claims Ultra Health violated the state’s medical cannabis program rules by moving a plant out of their approved growing and retail facilities and into the public. The pending sanction is a result of a cannabis plant Ultra Health used in an exhibit at the New Mexico State Fair last September. The plant Ultra Health brought to the State Fair was non-flowering, meaning it was not mature enough to be used for consumption..
In New Mexico, lawmakers have debated acceptable uses of medical marijuana and some have questioned if cannabis producers are allowed to have enough medical cannabis to qualify as an “adequate supply” for patients. While politicians and medical cannabis advocates in Santa Fe argue over appropriate plant numbers, getting actual numbers from the agency that governs the program is difficult—despite the fact that producers are required to use specific software to track all transactions. Despite the plethora of debates and discussion, cannabis transaction data from the state is either unavailable or state employees do not know how to access it. In almost every legislative discussion about New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, producers and patients sell their respective claims on how much medical cannabis should be available in the state. Depending on what day and who is speaking, the state could be in a shortage that amounts to a crisis or have such a glut of cannabis that producers have to unload product to each other.
Eight years ago, Sean Gabaldon didn’t think too much about cancer. As a high school basketball coach he strived to be an example of health to the boys on his team. One day he went to urgent care because his body felt as if he had “done a bunch of sit ups.” After a series of scans that day, doctors diagnosed Gabaldon with stage-four Burkitt lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. Gabaldon never went back to work as a teacher and coach after that initial diagnosis. “It moved so quick, I literally went home for the weekend and never came back,” Gabaldon said.
The state Department of Health was in the hot seat at an interim legislative committee meeting—despite the fact no one from the department was actually in the room. The interim Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee met with a number of people involved with the state’s medical cannabis program. The topic of discussion was the renewal and issuance of patient cards. No representative from DOH showed up, even though the department oversees the program. The committee’s vice chair, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, expressed her concern that DOH was unable to send anyone to speak about the delays many patients are seeing when applying for medical cannabis cards.
State Auditor Tim Keller wants answers from the state Department of Health for delays in the processing of cards for medical cannabis program patients. In a letter to DOH Secretary-designate Lynn Gallagher sent yesterday, Keller writes that that his office will audit the department’s compliance with the legally-required 30-day waiting period for processing applications of new and returning medical cannabis patients. Patients are required to renew their cards every year. As NM Political Report and other news outlets have recently reported, thousands of patients are waiting as much as two or three times the required time period to receive their card, despite a state statute requiring the department to process applications in no longer than 30 days. Patients waiting in the limbo period aren’t legally allowed to buy cannabis, even if they were members of the program and have been prescribed cannabis by their doctors.
Jason Barker has been a medical cannabis patient in New Mexico for the past year and a half. His qualifications for the state program amount to his complex posttraumatic stress disorder diagnoses, a condition he said developed after being molested as a child, dealing with physical abuse as an adult and working as an EMT in South Carolina. When his PTSD symptoms get bad, Barker said he usually avoids the outside world “because things become that hard to deal with.”
Related: DOH gets warned about medical marijuana delays
This happened earlier this year when the state Department of Health, which administers the program, delayed Barker’s renewal in the program for 58 days total and 28 days after its expiration. State law requires each medical cannabis patient renew their cards every year, though that waiting period is supposed to last one month at most. The waiting time made Barker unable to legally purchase cannabis, putting him in what he called “a legal grey area.”
During the time Barker didn’t have access to cannabis, his PTSD symptoms kicked back into gear.
The New Mexico State Auditor’s Office called on two state agencies to look into a medical cannabis executive director who is accused of a conflict of interest related to audits. In letters to the Department of Health and the Public Accountancy Board, a group within the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department that oversees public accountants, the state Auditor’s office expressed concern that Vivian Moore, a certified public accountant, may have created a conflict of interest by conducting independent audits of medical cannabis producers. This is because Moore also is the executive director of Doña Ana County-based Mother Earth Herbs, Inc.
Mother Earth Herbs, Inc. is a medical marijuana distributor licensed by the state. The letters came from Special Investigations Director Kevin Sourisseau. Sourisseau wrote that his office was made aware of “independence issues” concerning Moore and the audits she has allegedly performed for other producers.
At least one medical marijuana producer is hesitant about new transparency rules that open government advocates are lauding. Earlier this week, the New Mexico Department of Health announced a change to a confidentiality provision for medical marijuana producers. For more than a year, some advocates have pushed the department to release names and other information of producers around the state, citing a state public records law. According to the DOH website, only personal information of employees and producers, such as social security numbers and personal addresses, will be kept confidential. Willie Ford, executive director of Reynold Greenleaf & Associates, which manages non-profit producers, told NM Political Report that he is a supporter of transparency, but is not pleased with the release of information like grow locations.
New Mexico’s Attorney General is advocating for the state to disclose names of medical marijuana producers to the public. In a Dec. 31 letter written to state Medical Cannabis Program Patient Services Manager Andrea Sundberg, Attorney General Hector Balderas notes the Health Department’s proposal to disclose producers while keeping applications for personal production licenses confidential and pending non-profit producer applications private until the end of the application period. The Health Department recently agreed to allow the public to see medical marijuana producer licenses with those caveats. “We believe that this regulation not only exceeds the Department of Health’s statutory authority to promulgate rules, but also circumvents the mandates and intent of the IPRA,” Balderas writes.