January 13, 2017

Med pot bill to include all veterans and opioid dependents

A bill that would update the state’s medical cannabis law could see some changes before it’s ever heard in a legislative committee.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, prefiled his aptly named Medical Marijuana Changes bill last month. Now McSorley is working with a group of producers and patient advocates to make changes to his bill one week before the legislative session starts.

McSorley told NM Political Report he wants to add opioid addiction to the list of medical conditions that qualify patients to buy cannabis. He also said he wants to allow all veterans to use cannabis medicinally.

“This is a patient’s bill first and foremost,” McSorley said.

Willie Ford runs Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, a consulting company that oversees a number of nonprofit producers in New Mexico.

Ford said he encouraged McSorley to add opioid addiction to the list of approved medical conditions.

“It could change the entire way we look at addiction and treatment,” Ford said.

Earlier this year, the New Mexico Medical Advisory Board recommended DOH add opiate use disorder to the list of qualified conditions.

Though McSorley’s bill is aimed at helping patients, it will also ostensibly affect medical cannabis producers.

One provision in McSorley’s bill would allow licensed nonprofit producers to grow more plants—more than doubling the number from 450 to 1,000 plants at any given time.

Initially, the bill allowed 1,000 plants for a three-month period, but McSorley said he’s dropping the time frame.

Duke Rodriguez, owner and CEO of cannabis producer Ultra Health LLC, has been an outspoken critic of DOH’s rule limiting producers to only 450 plants. Rodriguez wants the DOH to take a more free market approach when it comes to plant counts. Rodriguez told NM Political Report that while he doesn’t think 1,000 plants per producer is the best move, it’s a “step in the right direction.”

“If this is the best [McSorley] can do, I understand the political reality,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and Ford have often had differing views on how the program should be run, but McSorley’s bill may help them find common ground.

Ford is concerned, he said, that the group of new producers that were approved last year may not have anticipated an increase in plant counts.

“It would be unfair to change the rules now,” Ford said.

While Rodriguez likes the idea of increased plant counts, he shares Ford’s concern that new producers only raised enough start up funds for the current maximum plant count.

New Mexico’s medical cannabis program is guided largely by a broadly worded statute, which DOH uses to implement its own rules.

A specific plant count for nonprofit providers, for example, is not mentioned in state law.

Instead, the statute allows for patients to have an “adequate supply” of cannabis and for the DOH to implement specific rules. State law defines adequate supply as enough to provide patients with an “uninterrupted availability of cannabis for a period of three months.”

McSorley said he is proposing a list of changes, partly because the department hasn’t updated its rules but also because the law has remained unchanged since its 2007 inception.

“The plant count rule is driving the price up and patients can just get it cheaper on the black market,” McSorley said.

Put simply, Ford said, the legislation is a way to tell the DOH to do its job.

“Essentially the bill is a defacto writ of mandamus,” Ford said, referring to the legal mechanism judges often use to enforce a certain action.

McSorley’s bill would also eliminate the limit of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), or the psychoactive element of cannabis, in derivative products, like waxes, oils and edible products.

The current DOH rules only allow for 77 percent THC in products that are derived from cannabis.

Rodriguez said the limited THC amounts actually do a disservice to patients and require them to spend more money.

“Say a patient needs 100 milligrams of THC,” Rodriguez said. “I have to sell you 120 diluted milligrams.”

Ford called the 77 percent limit “absolutely arbitrary” and said the THC limit increase is a “100 percent benefit for the patients.”

The bill would also decrease the wait time for patient cards and change the amount of cannabis each patient can possess, essentially defining “adequate supply” for the DOH.

The question of federal law is likely to come up during the legislative session, especially since President-elect Donald Trump’s Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, has been outspoken against both recreational and medical cannabis.

There is no guarantee that the Democrat-controlled state Legislature will pass the bill, and no one is sure whether Gov. Susana Martinez would sign it.

Rodriguez pointed out that while Martinez campaigned on shutting down the medical program, her administration was actually responsible for the recent wave of new producers.

“To her credit the program has the most growth under her,” Rodriguez said.

Ford said he disagrees that Martinez is any kind of champion for medical cannabis, pointing out that the program “went from zero to 25 producers under [former Gov. Bill] Richardson.”

McSorley, Rodriguez and Ford all agree that pushing the legislation is a smart move, but Ford has a slightly more cynical outlook.

“I’m a gambling man and I will take all bets,” Ford said, adding the caveat that “I don’t think she’ll sign any of this.”