July 9, 2019

Patients want a voice in group planning for cannabis legalization

Photo Credit: ChelseyHerba Flickr via Compfight cc

Since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a task force to study possible cannabis legalization measures last month, some in the medical cannabis community expressed concerns about proper representation. 

The Cannabis Legalization Working Group, the governor’s office said, will work this year and send their recommendations to Lujan Grisham before next year’s 30-day legislative session. Lujan Grisham announced earlier this year that she would add legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use to the call next year. In even numbered years, all legislation related to budgetary matters are considered “germane”, but the governor can give permission for legislators to discuss other issues. 

Some medical cannabis patients and patient advocates have long warned lawmakers of passing legalization proposals that might harm the medical cannabis program. Now, at least one patient and even medical cannabis producers are scratching their heads wondering why the Cannabis Legalization Working Group does not include actual patients. 

Patients want a seat at the table

Ginger Grider is a medical cannabis patient and works with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance. Grider, who lives in Portales, said rural parts of the state regularly see shortages or outages in local dispensaries. That’s why, Grider said, she and many other patients in rural areas opt to grow their own cannabis under a state issued Personal Production License. Now, Grider wants a spot at the table to talk about her concerns.    

“I’m disappointed that we were not invited,” Grider said. 

Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s director of communications, told NM Political Report that the working group already has representatives who can advocate for patients. 

“The medical side of the ball has more representation in the group than any other,” Stelnicki said. 

The group’s members include Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel, representatives of three New Mexico medical cannabis producers and representatives from Presbyterian Healthcare Services. Still, Grider said most of the medical cannabis representation is made up of representatives of groups who stand to make money. 

“The current list of everyone who’s on that group is everyone that has a financial interest in the industry,” Grider said. 

Stelnicki said patients and patient advocates have contacted the governor’s office with their concerns about representation and the plan is to include a handful of those voices in the group’s first meeting next week. Stelnicki also said the governor is already keeping patients in mind and pointed to actions she already took to help the medical program. 

“A healthy medical program is a sine qua non of prospective legalization,” Stelnicki said. “I think the work this administration has done to date in strengthening and expanding the medical program is reflective of that commitment.”

Lujan Grisham promised during her campaign last year to address cannabis plant limits for producers and to add opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis use. In March, DOH temporarily increased plant limits by 450 percent and approved a new list of qualifying conditions — including opioid use disorder. 

Executive Director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce Ben Lewinger said he has faith that Lujan Grisham’s office has patients’ best interests in mind. The working group, Lewinger said, should put the majority of their focus into things like public safety. 

“I am not sure that it’s the right role for a patient to serve on this working group at all,” Lewinger said. The three medical cannabis producers who are represented in the working group are also members of the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. 

Lewinger said New Mexico has a “very sophisticated and thriving” medical cannabis program and that he thinks Lujan Grisham will ensure the medical program will not suffer from recreational legalization. 

But some producers still have concerns.

Not just patient concerns

One high profile medical cannabis producer and a medical cannabis management company, neither of which are represented in the working group or part of the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said they also have some concerns about patient representation. 

Willie Ford, the managing director of the medical cannabis consulting company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, said a lack of patient voices could have unintended consequences.  

“When there’s no medical cannabis patients [represented], bad things can happen and it’s not in malice,” Ford said. 

Ford said states that went from having a medical program to full legalization can serve as a warning to New Mexico. In Colorado, Ford said, a large number of patients left the state’s medical program to instead buy legal cannabis without a medical card, albeit sometimes at higher prices. 

Other states that moved from medical-only cannabis to full legalization have seen dramatic decreases in patient numbers, according to the Associated Press

Ford said one possible solution to keep medical cannabis more accessible and affordable is to subsidize the medical program through recreational sales. 

“I’ve come to the realization that legalization could really help the medical cannabis industry,” Ford said.  

Ford said he has not ruled out the possibility of branching out into the business of recreational-use cannabis once it becomes legal in the state, but he still has concerns with patient representation.

“I have seen nobody who is a patient or patient advocate,” Ford said. “That’s deeply concerning.”

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, said it’s not just patients who are being left out of the discussion. 

“The single group that was somehow left off was patients, particularly rural patients,” Rodriguez said. 

It’s still unclear which working group members the governor’s office intends to represent patient concerns, but Rodriguez said it isn’t DOH, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program.  

“If the Department of Health could have been a good proxy, it wouldn’t have been necessary to drag them into court,” Rodriguez said, referencing the multiple lawsuits his company filed against the state. 

One of those lawsuits resulted in DOH issuing an emergency rule change to temporarily increase the number of plants medical cannabis producers can grow. In another lawsuit, a judge ruled that DOH could not limit the number of stores a producer opens. 

“All these disputes have revolved around patients rights,” Rodriguez said. 

The working group’s first meeting is scheduled for July 10 and the governor’s office told NM Political Report they plan to hold as many of the meetings in public as possible.