March 21, 2016

State medical pot inspections leave a lot to the imagination

In New Mexico, state regulated programs are usually subject to rigorous inspection procedures, ensuring operations adhere to certain standards.

Medical marijuana prescription

Medical marijuana prescription

After a review of public records by NM Political Report it appears that an often controversial state program may not applying rigorous standards to its participants.

Last week the New Mexico Environment Department determined that medical cannabis producer New MexiCann Natural Medicine violated a number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards after an explosion ripped through a facility in Santa Fe last July.

Of the seven violations filed with OSHA, three related directly to the work environment that New MexiCann provided for the extraction process. Through a public records request, NM Political Report obtained producer inspection records for a 12 month period that show mostly blank inspection forms for New MexiCann along with other producers around the state.

Related: Video: Explosion rips through medical marijuana facility

The New Mexico Department of Health lists four locations for New MexiCann, all in northern New Mexico. From February 2015 to February 2016, DOH records obtained through the state Inspection of Public Records Act show that inspectors visited New MexiCann facilities five times. But there are no addressed on the forms, so it is not clear which locations were inspected.

Several months before the explosion in Santa Fe, there were two inspections of New MexiCann facilities, one for a “proposed distribution facility” and another for a “new kitchen location.” A New MexiCann location was again inspected in July, about two weeks before the explosion occurred. During the time period of NM Political Report’s records request, New MexiCann was inspected the most of any medical marijuana producer, with 5 inspections in 12 months. DOH officials again inspected the producer 15 days after the explosion.

The post-explosion inspection noted that it was for a “3rd distribution facility” and that there was no “timeline for opening.” The inspector, who is not identified on the form, also wrote, “see amendment,” with no reference to what or where the amendment might be. It is also the most noteworthy inspection as it is the only one for New MexiCann that specifies that the facility complied with safety and emergency procedures. An inspection of a New MexiCann location in December only cites the procedure name, “NMNM”, the date of the inspection, a confirmation of a security system and comments that state, “new dispensary inspection.”

No preferential treatment

A glance at inspection records show no obvious pattern of when or how inspections of producers occur. NM Political Report reached out to a representative and a spokesman for DOH about how inspections schedules are determined with no response. The medical cannabis program rules offer little insight to how or when a producer is inspected. The rules state that DOH “may verify” information for a new production application through an onsite visit. Regarding compliance, the medical cannabis rules state that DOH “may perform on-site assessments” of producers and manufacturers.

The rules do not outline how or when site visits are supposed to occur.

Out of the 23 pages of site visits obtained by NM Political Report, the one with the least amount of information is from Verdes Foundation in Albuquerque. The form includes the name “Verdes,” the licensing and inspection dates and little other information. The form offers no indication of compliance and only offers three words that explain the visit — “PRODUCER KITCHEN INSPECTION.”

One of the site visit forms with the most information is from an inspection conducted at Budding Hope. The inspector, who is not identified on the form, indicated the facility was in compliance with HIPAA, had a safety manual on site and had a policy to check patient status. Mario Gonzales, the president of the Roy-based company said he doesn’t necessarily see a problem with how the site visits are conducted.

“The Department of Health, I’m sure, is trying to get better at what they do and things are getting better all the time,” Gonzalez said.

In terms of production rules, Gonzales said an inspector can usually easily determine if a producer has more plants than allowed. Producers in New Mexico can not have any more than 450.

Even so, the spot on the site visit form labeled, “plant count” was a common blank spot in the forms obtained by NM Political Report.

Gonzales also said the DOH probably isn’t the right department to inspect equipment used for dangerous procedures like extracting THC using butane, the process which resulted in the explosion at New MexiCann.

“If the Department of Health lacks the expertise, I wouldn’t blame them for not being through in regards to that,” Gonzalez said.

Jason Little, who operates New Mexico Alternative Care out of Farmington, also said the state is simply inexperienced in growing marijuana.

“The state program is so new and you look at who is doing the inspections,” Little said.  “They don’t know what we are supposed to be doing.”

Little said he is not concerned about how some inspection records are mostly blank. He, like Gonzales, was the subject of one of the more extensive inspection form. When the DOH visited New Mexico Alternative Care in May 2015 the inspector filled out all but one section of the form.

“It’s all random,” Little said of site visits. “They give us a call 24 hours in advance that their coming and that’s all we get.”

Little said he’s not concerned with other producers’ inspections and says his company is “all aces” after inspections.