The New Mexico Department of Health could face a legal challenge from one of its most prominent critics, who also runs a high profile medical cannabis dispensary.
Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of New Mexico medical cannabis company Ultra Health, told NM Political Report that DOH “effectively denied” his application to become a medical cannabis patient in New Mexico.
Rodriguez added the qualifier “effectively” because DOH did not officially deny his application, but did ask for more information. His application is officially on hold until he provides more documentation.
“We have checked the documents you sent us and two items are needed,” a letter from DOH read. The two items missing were a valid New Mexico photo ID and a New Mexico address on his patient information form.
The “effective” denial is the latest in a back-and-forth between the department and Rodriguez regarding whether or not non-residents of New Mexico can become a medical cannabis patient in New Mexico.
In June, days before a change to the state’s medical cannabis law went into effect, Ultra Health bought radio ad space in southeastern New Mexico notifying listeners that New Mexico changed its law to allow non-residents the chance to become a medical cannabis patient. A bill signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in March, which made sweeping changes to the medical cannabis law, replaced the words “resident of New Mexico” with the word “person” in the definition of “qualified patient.” The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said the change was tied to a section that outlined regulations on reciprocity for other states with medical cannabis programs. The law changes allow for medical cannabis patients from other states to use their respective cards to obtain medical cannabis in New Mexico.
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.
A high-profile New Mexico medical cannabis producer still maintains a recent change in the wording of the state’s medical cannabis law means non-residents should be able to become patients. Brian Egolf, an attorney for medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, sent a six-page letter arguing that point to Medical Cannabis Program director Kenny Vigil on Wednesday. Egolf is also New Mexico’s Speaker of the House. In the letter, Egolf outlined five reasons why the state should allow non-residents to become patients in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, including a straightforward reading of the law, the fact that other state programs include non-residents, that state law prohibits transporting cannabis across state lines and that the Department of Health cannot override state law. A DOH spokesman said the department received the letter late in the day on Wednesday and was still reviewing it at publication time.
The New Mexico Department of Public Health has made it clear—only New Mexico residents can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. “Persons who are not residents of New Mexico cannot be enrolled in the NM Medical Cannabis Program,” the department said in a statement to NM Political Report Friday. The statement came after the CEO of a prominent medical cannabis producer said he believes a change in the law allows for out-of-state patients to enroll in New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program. Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ultra Health, previously told NM Political Report he bought radio ads in the southeast part of New Mexico to inform those in west Texas they can now apply to become a medical cannabis patient. Cannabis is illegal in Texas for all uses, including medical.
A recent expansion of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis through rule changes will likely result in a higher number of patients in New Mexico. But a law that goes into effect on Friday could also result in a new pool of patients—non-residents of New Mexico.
Some changes to the law include protections from discrimination for patients, reciprocity with other states’ medical cannabis programs and an extended life span of medical cannabis cards. But perhaps the most significant and, until now, overlooked change to the law is who qualifies for medical cannabis cards. As of Friday, the definition of a “qualified patient” will no longer include the term “resident of New Mexico.” That term was replaced with “person.”
Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, noticed the change in language and launched a campaign targeted towards residents of Texas who live close to New Mexico.
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.
According to recent tests, Cannon Air Force Base’s public water system is safe. In response to the discovery of groundwater contamination last year, the state of New Mexico conducted follow-up testing this spring. Samples from two of the four wells currently supplying drinking water tested by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) did contain polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. That includes samples from the Turquoise Estates drinking water system. But the levels are below the federal health advisory.
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.
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.
Planned Parenthood is expanding to El Paso for the first time in nearly 10 years, which supporters say will make abortion access easier for women in Southern New Mexico. Marshall Martinez, the public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico, told NM Political Report while it still isn’t convenient for people in Las Cruces to drive to El Paso, the new clinic will be an additional resource for southern New Mexico. “This would provide an additional point of access, closer than Albuquerque, which is needed for the community down there,” Martinez said. Planned Parenthood currently has two clinics that provide abortion services in New Mexico. One in Albuquerque, and the other in Santa Fe.