March 16, 2021

Senate approves effort to clarify medical cannabis reciprocity

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New Mexico State Senate.

The New Mexico Senate approved on Monday a bill that would more narrowly define medical cannabis reciprocity by a 28-10 vote. 

Sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, SB 340 would specify that reciprocal cannabis patients in New Mexico cannot be a local resident and that reciprocal patients must reside in the state where they are approved by a medical professional to use medical cannabis.

Ortiz y Pino said since New Mexico began honoring reciprocity with other states that have legalized medical cannabis, a number of people from Texas started obtaining authorization to use medical cannabis in California and then using that authorization in New Mexico as reciprocal patients. 

“This is a bill that is an effort at preventing some of the abuses that have begun creeping into our medical cannabis program in the state,” Ortiz y Pino said. 

While most of the comments from Senators were in support of the bill, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who has also served as legal counsel for the medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, took issue with the proposal. 

Candelaria, who has also been open about being a medical cannabis patient, shared his struggles with PTSD as a victim of rape when he was a child. Candelaria also said he took issue with comments from Senate Republicans inferring that many of the 108,000 patients in New Mexico are using the state’s medical cannabis program as de facto legalization. 

“I encourage us to stop making assumptions about people’s motives,” Candelaria said. 

Candelaria also unsuccessfully offered up an amendment to the bill that would have increased the amount of cannabis qualified patients can buy each day. Currently, Department of Health rules allow patients to purchase 230 units in a rolling 90-day period. The department defines a unit as one gram of flower or bud or 250 milligrams of concentrate. Candelaria’s amendment would have increased the limit to two ounces a day. Only 11 other Democrats voted in favor of the amendment. 

Regarding the bill itself, Candelaria accused the department of being overly restrictive in running the Medical Cannabis Program.

“I am shocked, Mr. President, at the length the Department of Health will go to to restrict access to medicine,” Candelaria said. “I think, Mr. President, the challenge that I and other patients have always had is that the Department of Health regulates the cannabis program, like a criminal justice program.”

Candelaria has represented Ultra Health in a handful of court cases against the state, namely a legal challenge to an emergency rule that largely aimed to accomplish the same thing as SB 340. In that case, a state district judge ruled that the Department of Health improperly imposed the emergency rule change, but that the department could limit reciprocity through a proper rule change, which it has not done yet. In another pending case filed by Candelaria against the state, his client, Ultra Health, accused the state of retaliation when coming up with the current production limit of 1,750 plants. 

“I want to dispel any notion the public has, any notion the public has, that what the Department of Health does is in the best interest of patients,” Candelaria said. “It is a political agenda, nothing more.”

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, also voted against SB 340, although he said he understood the state’s concern. 

“I think I prefer it the way it is now to allow people from other states to be able to use our program if we don’t have shortages, just on humanitarian grounds,” Steinborn said. 

Steinborn made a similar argument last year when Ortiz y Pino sponsored a bill to limit the medical cannabis program to only residents or those who are reciprocal patients

Candelaria also said he would likely file suit against the state yet again if the bill becomes law, arguing that medical cannabis patients who are qualified to grow their own product are afforded access to more cannabis than those who rely on dispensaries. 

“I think the bill we’ve just passed also, and I look forward to bringing the lawsuit to unravel this, violates my equal protection rights,” Candelaria said. 

He added that the move to limit reciprocity does not give him “a lot of faith in where we’re going on recreational legalization this year,” and suggested maybe the state “put the brakes on that.”

SB 340 heads to the House where it will need to get through the committee process and a floor vote before noon on Saturday.