March 31, 2021

NM Ethics Commission dismisses ethics complaint by DOH secretary against state senator

State Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque

The New Mexico Ethics Commission effectively dismissed a complaint filed by a state cabinet secretary against a state senator. 

In a letter to New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Tracie Collins, the commission’s executive director Jeremy Farris wrote that the commission would not consider Collins’ complaint against Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque as the issue is out of the purview of the Ethics Commission.

According to Farris’ letter, Collins accused Candelaria of violating the state’s Governmental Conduct Act “by voting on a bill that clearly affected the outcome of a litigation matter concerning [Candelaria]’s client, and filed by [Candelaria].”

The bill in question was SB 340, a failed proposal in the regular legislative session that aimed to limit medical cannabis reciprocity. The client in question is medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, which has taken the department to court numerous times and is currently suing the state over medical cannabis plant limits. The latest suit from Ultra Health also accuses the department’s former secretary of discriminating against the medical cannabis producer. 

But the litigation Collins mentioned in her complaint against Candelaria is a suit from Ultra Health that alleged the Department of Health erroneously implemented an emergency rule to limit medical cannabis reciprocity. In 2019, the Legislature passed a law that allowed registered medical cannabis patients from other states to purchase, use and possess medical cannabis in New Mexico. Shortly after the department promulgated rules regarding reciprocity, residents of Texas reportedly began obtaining recommendations to use medical cannabis from doctors in California and using those recommendations to purchase medical cannabis in New Mexico. 

Last year, a state district court judge ruled that the state could limit reciprocity through the rulemaking process, but that the change did not warrant an emergency rule change. 

SB 340 would have added to statute that reciprocal patients could not be residents of New Mexico and that reciprocal patients would have to obtain state certification to use medical cannabis instead of just a doctor’s recommendation. 

On March 15, as the Senate was debating SB 340, Candelaria spoke against the bill and said he would consider suing the state if the bill became law. 

But Farris said the state constitution prohibits the Ethics Commission from investigating or censuring lawmakers for “any speech or debate or for any vote cast in either house.”

In other words, Farris wrote, “A claim against a legislator cannot be considered if it is based on a legislative act.”

Instead, Farris wrote, the issue should be sent to the Legislative Interim Ethics Committee.

While Candelaria was speaking out against SB 340 on the Senate floor, he emotionally disclosed that he uses medical cannabis to combat symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which is a result of him being raped as a child. 

Candelaria called the allegation from Collins a “malicious, bad faith ethics complaint” and said that he plans to sue the department for defamation. He also accused Collins of trying to “manipulate a moment” when he was speaking about his personal struggles with sexual assault and how cannabis helps his PTSD symptoms. 

“I find that behavior disgusting,” Candelaria said of the ethics complaint. 

The Department of Health did not make anyone available for an interview and did not answer questions from NM Political Report regarding Candelaria’s plan to sue the state, to what degree Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was involved in deciding to file an ethics complaint or whether Collins plans to take the issue to the Legislative Interim Ethics Committee. 

Instead, a spokesman for the department said “the process of reviewing the response and recommendation from the Ethics Commission is still being evaluated,” and that “the Department of Health does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation.”