February 17, 2020

Medical cannabis qualified patient bill heads to governor’s desk

A bill that would limit enrollment in the state’s medical cannabis program to New Mexico residents passed the House and is on its way to the governor’s desk. 

SB 139, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque would change the definition in the states medical cannabis law to specify that a qualified medical cannabis patient must be a resident of New Mexico. The House passed the bill on a 44-19 vote. 

As the bill has made its rounds in committee hearings, New Mexico’s Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel repeatedly stressed her fear that the federal government may try and interfere with the states Medical Cannabis Program if the bill is not signed into law. 

Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, presented the bill for Ortiz y Pino and fielded questions from her colleagues. 

Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Aztec, questioned how the Department of Health, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program, defines what a resident is. 

Armstrong, aided by Kunkel, said the department will accept various documents to prove a potential patient lives or plans to live in New Mexico. 

Montoya  ultimately voted against the bill. 

Rep. Zack Cook, R-Ruidoso, who was the sole dissenting vote on the bill in a committee hours earlier, also voted against the bill. He dismissed Kunkel’s concerns about the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“We don’t know that the feds are going to do anything,” Cook said, echoing his statements from earlier in the morning

Regardless, the bill received bipartisan support. But, four Democrats voted against the bill despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s support. 

The issue of who gets to enroll in the program goes back to last session when a bill that made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law also changed the definition of what a qualified patient from a “resident of New Mexico” to a “person.”

Arizona resident president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health Duke Rodriguez, along with two Texas residents, successfully convinced a state judge that they should be eligible to enroll in the program. Lujan Grisham and the DOH took the issue to the state Court of Appeals where the issue is still pending. Muddying the waters even more, Rodriguez’s lawyer in the case is Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, in his capacity as a lawyer outside of the Legislature. Egolf removed himself from the entire process and was not involved in the committee assignment process. 

After the definition was challenged in court last year, Ortiz y Pino told NM Political Report that the change was an attempt at creating a reciprocity program where qualified patients from states with medical cannabis programs could buy, use and possess cannabis in New Mexico. Kunkel, Armstrong and Ortiz y Pino argued throughout the legislative process of the bill that the state’s reciprocity program would still allow patients from other states to get their medicine. And while reciprocity was written into law, the DOH has not yet begun to roll the program out. The law states that the DOH must promulgate rules for reciprocity by March 1 of this year. A spokesman for the DOH told NM Political Report it’s likely reciprocity in practice won’t start until July due to needed updates to tracking software. 

There are currently more than 600 out-of-state medical cannabis patients enrolled in the program and at least one from Mexico. Armstrong said the DOH had no plans to take away those cards that have already been issued, although patients have to get their cards renewed every three years.