Growing Forward: Who’s running things?

Today marks the release of the 4th episode of Growing Forward, a collaboration between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund. 

In today’s episode, we look at the business side of medical cannabis and talk to a couple of high-profile cannabis business owners. 

One of the most recognizable names in the state’s medical cannabis program is Darren White. 

White is a former law enforcement officer and the former head of public safety for both the City of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico. He ended his time as Secretary of Public Safety under then-Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, after Johnson publicly said he was in favor of legalizing cannabis. 

At the time, White was staunchly opposed to legalizing cannabis and said he was even opposed to medical cannabis. But now White is the head of PurLife, one of the more prominent cannabis producers in the state. 

White told Growing Forward that he had an “eye-opening experience” after a friend suggested White try a cannabis topical to help combat chronic pain. 

“I was just wrong about it,” White said. “It really does help a lot of people and their quality of life.”

This week’s episode also explores how the state expanded the maximum number of plants producers can grow after a legal battle with another prominent producer. 

But this week’s episode also examines what it’s like to be a producer through the eyes of a female producer, in what seems to be a male-dominated industry. 

If you haven’t listened to the first three episodes, you can catch up below or search for Growing Forward at anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you usually get your podcasts. 

Growing Forward: The Dynamics of Legalization

In about two months some New Mexico lawmakers will begin to prefile bills ahead of next year’s legislative session, which starts in January. 

All issues are on the table for the upcoming 60-day session, but one topic that’s almost guaranteed to resurface in January is legalizing recreational-use cannabis. Since she took office in 2019, and even during her campaign before that, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made a point to push for legalization. 

In the latest episode of Growing Forward, a collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, we briefly take a look at the last attempt at legalization and why it failed. 

The proverbial nail in the coffin for the most recent attempt came from the highly critical Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes criticized the bill for being too long and complex to fully vet in the last several days of this year’s 30-day session. 

Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, has been a point person, of sorts, for the past few years on legalization efforts. He said Cervantes’ criticism of the length of the bill is unfounded. 

“I’ve been in the legislature six years now and this is not the biggest bill I’ve seen by far,” Martínez said. 

Cervantes also criticised a provision that would allow those who have been convicted of low-level drug crimes to get involved in the potential legal cannabis industry. He rhetorically asked if Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán, commonly known as El Chapo, would be able to get a license to produce and sell cannabis in New Mexico. 

Martínez told Growing Forward that he took offense to that question as Guzmán has a reputation for violence and the bill’s provision was specifically for non-violent offenders. 

“No, El Chapo would not have been able to get a cannabis license,” Martínez said.

NM Political Report, NMPBS launch Growing Forward

New Mexico Political Report is excited to announce the result of a months-long collaboration with New Mexico PBS: Growing Forward. 

Growing Forward is a new podcast about cannabis in New Mexico, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund. 

Reporter Andy Lyman and NMPBS correspondent Megan Kamerick have teamed up to produce ten episodes looking at the state’s current medical cannabis program, how it started and what New Mexicans could see in the near future in terms of legalization of recreational-use cannabis. 

You can hear episodes every Tuesday and the first one will be released on Sept. 22. Subscribe on your podcatcher of choice and check out the trailer below. 

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.

Egolf to recuse himself from process on cannabis bill

The New Mexico Speaker of the House announced Friday that he will remove himself from the legislative process if a Senate bill related to three of his clients makes it to the House. 

Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, issued a letter to the House clerk detailing his plan of action if SB 139, which would clarify that medical cannabis patients in the state must be New Mexico residents, makes it to the House. 

Egolf is an attorney outside of his role as Speaker. New Mexico does not have full-time legislators. The bill is a direct result of a pending court of appeals case between Egolf’s clients and the governor’s office. A bill that made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law last year included a change in who could become a New Mexico medical cannabis patient. Previously, the law defined a qualified patient as a “resident of New Mexico” who suffered from an approved qualifying condition.

Lower profile cannabis bills headed for floor debates

With eight days left in the legislative session, passing a cannabis legalization bill is looking more and more like a long-shot. But there are three other bills related to cannabis and hemp that have been moving through committee assignments, some with little to no debate or opposition. 

The two cannabis legalization bills have stalled so far in both legislative chambers. The Senate version passed its first committee and is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in its second. The House version of legalization has yet to be heard in its first committee. Both bills are politically divisive and will likely be subjected to hours of public testimony and legislative debate.

Cannabis research bill advances

The House Commerce and Economic Development approved a bill that would allow for special licenses to grow, buy, sell or manufacture cannabis for approved research facilities Friday by a 6-3 vote. HB 334, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, would allow licensed research facilities to grow and transport cannabis and establish a Cannabis Control Division to regulate licensing. The state’s Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD) would oversee the Cannabis Control Division. 

Martínez fielded questions from both Democratic and Republican committee members, but all of the criticisms came from Republicans. Some of those concerns were whether RLD is the best home for the Cannabis Control Department. 

Martínez and his expert witnesses explained to the committee that under current federal law, research facilities can get approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow cannabis, but those researchers must get their plants from the federal agency. If passed, HB 334 would allow New Mexico to issue special research licenses and researchers could grow their own cannabis or buy from another approved facility. 

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said she didn’t think regulating cannabis is necessarily in the department’s purview.

Cannabis legalization bill passes first committee on party lines

A cannabis legalization bill passed its first committee Tuesday. The Senate Public Affairs voted 4-3 along party lines to pass SB 115 after hours of public comment and debate between lawmakers. 

Even though a number of people spoke against legalization, they were largely outnumbered by those in favor of it. 

For the most part, those who spoke out in opposition said they were concerned about safety and health issues like driving while impaired and addiction. 

The bill’s sponsor and the committee chair, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, did not present the bill. Instead, legalization proponent and medical cannabis patient Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, took the lead on selling the bill to the committee

Candelaria answered some concerns about testing drivers for cannabis use. There is no test for levels of cannabis like there is for alcohol. “Just because there is no test, doesn’t mean people won’t get caught for DWI,” Candelaria said.

Cannabis legalization looms large in session

The 2020 legislative session starts tomorrow and besides the standard 30-day budgetary issues, many eyes are on cannabis and whether this is the year it becomes legal to use recreationally. Last week, two lawmakers filed bills aimed doing just that. 

Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, are cosponsors of the Senate version of the Cannabis Regulation Act. Martinez is the sponsor of the House version of the bill. 

The bills are largely based on recommendations from a legalization work group and a legalization bill that failed to get to the governor’s desk last year. Both bills are 175 pages long and prescribe how recreational should be taxed, age limits for possessing or consuming cannabis and which state entities will be involved. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced last year that she would support a comprehensive legalization bill and added to “the call” this year. It is nearly unheard of for legislation to make it to the governor’s desk without some amendments, so these two bills will likely change in the next 30 days, but here are some key points of the bills. 

Possible heartburn

Various different lawmakers have tried to pass recreational legalization bills over the years, but 2019 marked the farthest in the process a proposal made it in recent history.

Dept. of Health proposes rules for medical cannabis consumption areas, patient reciprocity

The New Mexico Department of Health has proposed a list of rule changes for the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, which would add guidelines for designated “consumption areas” and reciprocity for medical cannabis patients enrolled in medical cannabis programs in other states. 

After major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law made during the 2019 legislative session, the law now states that a consumption area is, “an area within a licensed premises approved by the department where cannabis may be consumed that complies with rule as established by the department.” 

The department’s proposed changes would require consumption areas to be “located on the premises of licensed non-profit producers” and medical cannabis patients who use cannabis in said areas to have a designated driver or use “other lawful means of transportation” when leaving. 

If the rule is finalized by the DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel, medical cannabis producers who want to open a consumption area would be required to submit safety and security plans to the department for approval. Only existing producers would be able to apply to open consumption areas.  

The department has also proposed a rule that would outline reciprocity for medical cannabis patients from outside New Mexico. Not to be confused with a change in law that allows non-residents of New Mexico to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, reciprocity would allow patients already enrolled in another state’s medical cannabis program to buy and consume cannabis in New Mexico without having to enroll in the program. A reciprocal patient would only need to provide identification and a medical cannabis card from their home state to purchase up to about 8 ounces of dried cannabis flower or corresponding extracts in a rolling three month period, which is consistent with what New Mexico cannabis patients can buy. Dispensaries would be required to enter reciprocal patient information in a DOH-run patient tracking system. 

Other changes include a new fee structure and new testing standards for medical cannabis producers.