Cannabis consumption area future cloudy amid COVID-19

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.

Medical cannabis reciprocity on hold

Medical cannabis patients from other states will have to wait until they can purchase or use their medicine in New Mexico. 

Even though medical cannabis reciprocity is written in state law and rules and regulation, the head of New Mexico’s program told NM Political Report that medical cannabis producers will not be able to sell to out of state patients until July. 

Dr. Dominick Zurlo, the Medical Cannabis Program director, confirmed that the state’s Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel has signed off on a rule change that outlines rules for reciprocal patients. “It’s been signed and promulgated, which means it’s been basically distributed and become a regulation,” Zurlo said. “In the regulation itself, it does state it will take effect on July 1st.”

That’s partly because, Zurlo said, the seed-to-sale tracking software the state uses is due for an upgrade. Under the new rules, already-qualified cannabis patients from states that have a medical cannabis program could go to any dispensary in New Mexico to register as a reciprocal patient. 

“What it really comes down to is we’re not doing an upgrade that just includes this,” Zurlo said. “We’re actually doing a much broader upgrade and an upgrade that is going to have a much greater impact for patients in improving the system and improving how patients actually get registered in the program.”

Zurlo said part of the update will include an online portal where some patients can register and be approved by providers online. 

Between now and July, medical cannabis patients in New Mexico can expect to see the beginnings of consumption areas, or sanctioned places to use medical cannabis.

DOH set to finalize rules on cannabis consumption areas, new testing standards

New Mexico is one step closer to establishing sanctioned, legal areas for medical cannabis patients to use their medicine. 

The Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program held a public hearing Thursday to hear comments from the public regarding department rule changes. Those changes include higher testing standards for cannabis producers and manufacturers, reciprocity for medical cannabis patients already enrolled in a medical program in another state and consumption areas. 

Most comments from the public were about the testing standards, but some medical cannabis patients said they would like to see more leniency on who can open a consumption area and where they can open it. 

Erica Rowland, a founding member of the Albuquerque-based cannabis producer Seven Clover, said the opportunity to open a consumption area should not be limited to those who already produced the cannabis. 

“Consumption areas should not be limited to [Licensed Non Profit Producers],” Rowland said. 

But because the state’s cannabis law is specifically written and leaves little room for interpretation, the Legislature would need to act to change consumption area requirements. After changes made during the 2019 legislative session, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act allows for consumption areas, but requires that they are owned and operated by a Licensed Non Profit Producer, effectively barring someone from starting a new business solely for cannabis consumption. 

The statute, not the proposed rule change, also requires that anyone consuming cannabis at a consumption area have a safe ride home. It’s still unclear who would be held liable for someone who leaves a consumption area and drives themselves. Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo said that is more of a legal question and out of the DOH’s purview. 

“One of the big issues of course is New Mexico is one of the states that has a huge issue with DUIs and we want to ensure people are able to get home safely,” Zurlo said.

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.