July 13, 2019

DOH hears public input on medical cannabis changes

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. “I think we need to figure out a way to have a more organized way to meet with them.”

About 30 people shared their thoughts about how the program can improve. Among those speakers were about a half dozen producers who weighed in on plant limits and fee increases for medical cannabis producers. 

So what about those plants?

Of the medical cannabis production companies that were represented at Friday’s hearing, only one spoke against the proposed plant limit of 1,750.

Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, spoke against the new plant count and said 13 of the 34 medical cannabis producers agreed with him. 

In written testimony to DOH, an Ultra Health project manager wrote that the proposed plant limit is “arbitrary and capricious.” 

Rodriguez pointed to a study his company commissioned that showed 5,000 plants per producer would be an adequate supply.  

Other producers who supported the 1,750 plant count stressed quality over quantity. 

Willie Ford, the managing director of cannabis consulting company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, borrowed a phrase from Len Goodman, another veteran to the program. 

“We don’t need more producers, we need better producers,” Ford said.

Mario Gonzales who runs cannabis producer Budding Hope made light of the recent debate between New Mexico and Colorado over which state had the best green chile. Gonzales said there’s no argument that New Mexico wins with it’s chile, just not its cannabis. 

“When we talk about cannabis, I don’t think we hold a candle to other states,” Gonzales said. 

Josh McCurdy, a patient advocate from rural New Mexico, took a jab at Ultra Health, without naming names. 

“If you want 5,000 plants you all better learn to grow better plants,” McCurdy said. 

McCurdy is one of many rural patients who are pushing for grow collectives which would allow patients with a Personal Production License can pool resources to grow their own cannabis. Many rural patients have long complained about a lack of dispensaries or dispensaries with nearly empty shelves in less-populated parts of the state. 

A DOH spokesman said Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel will make a decision about the proposed rule changes within several weeks. The department has until the end of August to come up with a permanent plant count.

Correction: This story originally misidentified Daniel Jacobs’ last name as Daniels after the first reference.