January 23, 2017

Cannabis patients, producers push for expansion of program

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.

Three days later, Gabaldon began a 15-month ordeal that saw him in and out of the hospital. He equates the aggressive treatment he endured as going “all the way to death” as doctors attempted to kill off cancerous cells, then bring his immune system back to life. Now, Gabaldon said, after enduring chemotherapy, the next step for his compromised immune system is a bone marrow transplant.

Suggested first by his doctor, medical cannabis became a part of Gabaldon’s recovery. Now, almost a decade after his diagnosis, Gabaldon may play a pivotal role in efforts by Santa Fe lawmakers to expand the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to include more conditions and.

Making sure patients aren’t left behind

Gabaldon told NM Political Report he hadn’t tried cannabis, medical or otherwise, until his doctor recommended it about eight years ago.

“I’m a Nancy Reagan kid,” Gabaldon said, referring to the former First Lady who urged children to “Just Say No” to drugs. “They told me not to use drugs, I didn’t use drugs.”

Gabaldon began using morphine to manage his pain, but soon had to increase his dosage when his body built a tolerance to the drug. Now, in addition to being a cancer survivor, Gabaldon describes himself as  a “medical morphine addict.”

He credits cannabis for helping him through cancer treatments, and also helping him to kick his opiate habit.

It’s stories like this why a bill from Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque will include opiate addiction as a condition for the medical cannabis program. The bill is expected to see its first committee meeting this week.

To advocate for more improvements to the medical cannabis program, Gabaldon helped form a cannabis patient and producer alliance.

Another member of the alliance is registered lobbyist and New Mexico attorney Joel Davis. Davis, Gabaldon, cannabis producers and other patients recently formed the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Alliance as a way to centralize interests and concerns.

Gabaldon met Davis through former Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. Gabaldon knew Sanchez from living in his district. Sanchez knew Davis through political circles.

Gabaldon knew at least two producers from his time as a patient and wanted to make sure the medical program didn’t get lost in plans to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

“We don’t have a voice,” Gabaldon said. “All we hear is rec, rec, rec, plant count, plant count, plant count…”

Often times, Gabaldon said, patients themselves cannot show up to public hearings or meetings in person.

“The thing with patients is, they’re ill, they don’t feel good,” Gabaldon said. “Sometimes they want to be involved and just can’t show up.”

Davis told NM Political Report his group wants to make sure the state’s medical program won’t suffer if New Mexico legalizes recreational cannabis.

“We want to make sure patients don’t get left behind,” Davis said.

That’s not a new concern.

Advocates for the state’s medical program have long raised questions about patients’ roles in the hypothetical situation of fully legalized recreational cannabis in New Mexico.

In Colorado, Davis said, medical producers were able to start the process of growing and producing medical cannabis months before the rest of the recreational industry could be begin.

“They gave them a little head start before the place was inundated,” Davis said.

That head start, Davis said, helped the medical industry prepare for the increase in plant demand.

Full recreational legalization of marijuana is highly unlikely under Gov. Susana Martinez, who has said she would veto any bill to legalize marijuana.

But McSorley’s bill addresses medical marijuana and includes provisions to raise patient plant counts, allow for more potent products and expand qualifications.

Still, the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Alliance wants to make sure any attempt to legalize marijuana takes patients into account.

Centralizing concerns

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla, has been at the forefront of drafting legislation to fully legalize cannabis for the past two years. When introducing his first legalization bill in 2015, he publicly acknowledged that it had little chance getting signed by Martinez. He also criticized the Republican House of Representatives leadership when they assigned his bill to five committees, all but sealing its fate of dying before lawmakers began debating it.

McCamley pleaded with House leadership each of the last two years to discuss cannabis legalization instead of dismissing the issue all together.

Regardless of quashed committee discussions, McCamley said he has tried to address as many concerns as he can in his current legalization measure and left the door open for more discussion.

“It’s changed quite a bit and it’s probably going to change more,” McCamley said.

This year, McCamley added a provision that would create a medical cannabis subsidy program funded by 2 percent of tax on cannabis.

Willie Ford, managing director of Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, a medical cannabis management and operations company, praised McCamley for including the medical cannabis industry in the recreational legalization discussion, emphasizing that McCamley has been “extremely awesome in responding to patients’ needs.”

McCamley said the best way he gets information is through groups that have a list of clear and comprehensive list of concerns or suggestions.