June 8, 2020

Cannabis consumption area future cloudy amid COVID-19

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Amid a gradual relaxing of public health orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, consumers and business owners alike are navigating how to have a socially distanced meal, shopping trip and gym session. But after July, there will be a new type of business facing still unknown restrictions while at the same time allowing patrons to smoke inside.

Pending a signature from the Department of Health Secretary, the state will allow medical cannabis consumption areas after July 1. But since it’s hard to predict how public health orders may change in the next 30 days, it’s also hard to say how those consumption areas will work in practice, according to Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo. 

“What I think is very safe to say is that, just like any other business or essential service, they will have to follow the COVID-19 guidlines that are set out in the public health orders and executive orders,” Zurlo said.

Zurlo said he is not sure yet if DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel will group consumption areas with restaurants in terms of restrictions, but stressed that how they operate will depend on how the number of COVID-19 cases increase or decrease. 

“If COVID 19 continues the way we are right now, then that’s going to make things a little easier. But if we start seeing increases in transmission rates then once again, there may be changes,” said.

Medical cannabis consumption areas were approved as part of a comprehensive bill in 2019, which also allows those who are enrolled in a medical cannabis program from another state to buy and use it in New Mexico. State law will recognize reciprocal patients after July 1. Separate from reciprocity, a short-lived law that ultimately allowed the issuance of medical cannabis cards to any qualified patient, regardless of their home state’s laws for cannabis, resulted in almost 700 additional people getting a medical cannabis card. But again, Zurlo said, the state is discouraging unnecessary travel to and from New Mexico.

“The idea behind the reciprocal patient was really for individuals who, while yes they may be traveling through for vacation and those sorts of things, that’s being discouraged throughout the state based on the public health orders,” Zurlo said. 

In addition to restricting groups of people in a given space and asking people to wear face coverings, there is an issue of how patients use cannabis. Zurlo said consumption areas can offer a reprieve for patients who may rent a home where smoking is prohibited, or those who are living in subsidised housing. But excessive exhaling, like when working out at a gym, Zurlo said, adds another factor into how the new consumption areas can operate and that there is a lack of conclusive studies that show how smoking anything might impact COVID-19 infection. 

What is known for sure is that the new rule goes into effect on July 1, as long as Kunkel signs the rule change before then. Then medical cannabis producers can apply for a license change to include a consumption area as part of their dispensaries. Requirements for an acceptable amendment will include written plans for ensuring only patients with a valid identification card are using the consumption area and that proprietors ensure patients have access to a safe ride home.  

Another safe bet, Zurlo said, is that requirements and restrictions will change along with the COVID-19 infection rate.

“I anticipate even once things move forward, with the consumption sites starting to be available

that it probably will change at different points based upon what’s happening with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Zurlo said