February 5, 2020

Medical cannabis qualified patient clarification bill breezes through committee

The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted in favor of a bill that would specify that only New Mexico residents can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. 

All but one member voted to approve Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino’s SB 139, which Ortiz y Pino said is an attempt to “clarify” that a qualified medical cannabis patient must be a resident of New Mexico. 

Up until last year, the statutory definition of a qualified patient included the words “resident of New Mexico.” Ortiz y Pino told the committee that one of his bills last year struck those words and replaced them with “person.” He also told the panel that his intention was to establish a path towards reciprocity with other medical cannabis states.  

“Not being a lawyer, I don’t understand how that wasn’t clear,” he said.

Ortiz y Pino’s bill last year, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law, had a separate definition for reciprocal patients.

Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel helped to present the bill and answer questions. She told the committee that one of her bigger concerns, other than having enough medical cannabis for New Mexico patients, is that residents of Texas are getting New Mexico cannabis patient cards and taking cannabis across state lines, which is against federal law. 

“We have now essentially given license to non residents to transport a controlled substance across our state borders,” Kunkel told the committee. 

Kunkel said there are currently more than 600 patients enrolled in New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program who are residents of other states and one person from Mexico with a pending application. For context, there are about a dozen counties in the state with fewer patients. She also said most of the out-of-state patients are from Texas. Surrounding states like Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma all have medical cannabis programs. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, was the only dissenting vote. He argued that New Mexico could be a trendsetter in offering those from Texas the chance to utilize the medical benefits of cannabis. 

“It is maybe cutting edge, we may be on the frontier,” Steinborn said. “But let’s face it, cannabis is a new frontier.” 

Last year, Ortiz y Pino’s SB 406 made sweeping changes to New Mexico’s medical cannabis law including the definition of a qualified patient.  

Arizona resident and head of cannabis producer Ultra Health Duke Rodriguez, along with two Texas residents, filed a petition in state district court after the New Mexico Department of Health denied their requests for medical cannabis patient cards. A Santa Fe judge ruled in favor of the three petitioners and said the law allows for non-residents of New Mexico to enroll as medical cannabis patients regardless of whether their respective home state has a medical cannabis program. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office intervened in the matter, with an unsuccessful request for the judge to reconsider. Last November the Department of Health and the governor’s office filed an appeal. That matter is still pending. 

Further muddying the issue, New Mexico’s Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, who is a practicing attorney outside of the legislative session, is representing Rodriguez and the two other petitioners in the court case.