February 17, 2020

Medical cannabis qualified patient bill has one last stop before the governor’s desk

A bill aimed at limiting who can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program was approved in committee Monday morning and now has one more stop before the governor’s desk. 

The House Health and Human Services Committee passed SB 139 on a 6-1 vote. 

Update: The legislation passed the full House on Monday afternoon. See the story here.

The bill would change the law to allow only New Mexico residents who have a qualifying condition to get a medical cannabis patient card. 

Though sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the committee’s chair Democratic Rep. Debbie Armstrong of Albuquerque presented the bill, with the help of Secretary of Health Kathyleen Kunkel as her expert witness. 

Kunkel told the committee that a change in law last year that was aimed at forging a path to reciprocity, or allowing certified medical cannabis patients from other states to purchase and use cannabis in New Mexico, inadvertently resulted in about 600 out-of-state patients enrolled in New Mexico’s program. 

Kunkel said it has been an “administrative burden” on the Department of Health since the state started allowing non-residents to enroll in the program. Plus, she said, she fears that the current law will attract unwanted attention from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“I am concerned that we are tempting the federal government to come in and interfere with our program,” Kunkel said. 

All three Republicans on the committee raised questions and concerns, but ultimately the only dissenting vote came from Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso. Early on in the hearing, Kunkel said there is currently a resident of Mexico enrolled in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program because of the law change. Cook said he thought there is a good chance that the patient is also a legal permanent resident. 

“I guess I don’t understand what the big deal was, that there’s somebody from another country who has a card in our state,” Cook said. 

Rep. Gail Armstong, R-Magdelena, said she would have liked to see a definition of what a resident is in the bill, although she was not present for the vote. 

The bill moves on to the House floor next. If the House approves the bill it will go to the governor’s office where it’s almost guaranteed a signature from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The governor’s lawyer, Matt Garcia, spoke in favor of SB 139 and said it’s a priority of the governor’s. 

The legislation is partly the result of months of litigation involving Duke Rodriguez who is the president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. Rodriguez, who is a resident of Arizona but owns a home in New Mexico, joined two residents of Texas in successfully petitioning a state district judge to force the state to issue cards to qualified patients regardless of where they live. From there, Lujan Grisham’s office and the DOH took the issue to the state court of appeals where it remains pending. 

Further complicating matters, Rodriguez’s attorney in the case is Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, in his capacity as a lawyer outside his legislative duties. Egolf announced last week that he would not be involved in the senate bill’s legislative process, instead delegating those duties to floor leaders and assigning Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, as Speaker Pro Tempore to handle committee assignment. House Health and Human Services was the sole committee assignment. 

The nontraditional process seemed to draw out existing contention between House Democrats and Republicans during a floor session on Sunday afternoon. House Minority Floor Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia accused Ely of misrepresenting a letter from Egolf outlining a proposed plan to eliminate the perception of a conflict of interest. Rodriguez also spoke during Monday’s committee hearing and said any concern that the federal government will crack down on New Mexico is unfounded. 

“Sometimes people say these things and believe them to be true. They throw out these scares and go, ‘Right now, the feds are wanting to come down on us,’” Rodriguez said. “Not true.”

According to Kunkel, she has already signed a rule change that would allow for reciprocity with other medical cannabis states. That means if someone is already enrolled in a medical cannabis program in another state, they will soon be able to purchase, possess and use medical cannabis in New Mexico. Surrounding states like Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma have medical cannabis programs. Texas has a very restrictive medical cannabis program that only allows the possession and use of cannabis for a short list of conditions and only allows cannabis with half of a percent or less of the psychoactive substance THC. Federal law requires hemp to have less than .3 percent THC.