January 17, 2020

DOH set to finalize rules on cannabis consumption areas, new testing standards

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New Mexico is one step closer to establishing sanctioned, legal areas for medical cannabis patients to use their medicine. 

The Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program held a public hearing Thursday to hear comments from the public regarding department rule changes. Those changes include higher testing standards for cannabis producers and manufacturers, reciprocity for medical cannabis patients already enrolled in a medical program in another state and consumption areas. 

Most comments from the public were about the testing standards, but some medical cannabis patients said they would like to see more leniency on who can open a consumption area and where they can open it. 

Erica Rowland, a founding member of the Albuquerque-based cannabis producer Seven Clover, said the opportunity to open a consumption area should not be limited to those who already produced the cannabis. 

“Consumption areas should not be limited to [Licensed Non Profit Producers],” Rowland said. 

But because the state’s cannabis law is specifically written and leaves little room for interpretation, the Legislature would need to act to change consumption area requirements. After changes made during the 2019 legislative session, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act allows for consumption areas, but requires that they are owned and operated by a Licensed Non Profit Producer, effectively barring someone from starting a new business solely for cannabis consumption. 

The statute, not the proposed rule change, also requires that anyone consuming cannabis at a consumption area have a safe ride home. It’s still unclear who would be held liable for someone who leaves a consumption area and drives themselves. Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo said that is more of a legal question and out of the DOH’s purview. 

“One of the big issues of course is New Mexico is one of the states that has a huge issue with DUIs and we want to ensure people are able to get home safely,” Zurlo said. “They just need to ensure they have alternative transportation.”

But most of the hearing focused on testing standards. 

The department’s proposed rules would increase microbial and heavy metal testing for producers. During a hearing last month regarding the same rule change proposal, cannabis producers and manufacturers told the DOH that more stringent testing would lead to increased costs for patients. On Thursday, it was more than just producers who raised concerns about testing. 

Medical cannabis patient Sarah Dolk said she can appreciate higher testing standards but called the proposed testing standards “overzealous.”

“I am concerned with the high cost of testing being passed on to the patients,” Dolk said. “I don’t see how it isn’t going to be passed on to the patients.”

Eli Goodman, of cannabis producer Best Daze, said while health and safety is “paramount,” increased testing for heavy metals would indeed lead to increased prices. 

“The difficulty with testing [is] increased costs can be problematic because, inevitably, they do end up at the counter,” Goodman said.

He went on to say that those increased costs would likely push patients to buy unregulated cannabis. 

Zeke Shortes, who runs the cannabis production company Sacred Garden, offered up a solution. 

“The Medical Cannabis Program has started collecting more money, so I would love to do the testing and have the cannabis program pay for it,” Shortes said. “It seems like a good solution if you all (DOH) want safer medicine which we all do, pay for it.”

There is no set timeline for when the hearing officer will send his recommendations to DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel, but Zurlo said he anticipates the rules will be finalized shortly after February.