Tax expert says there could be significant revenues in cannabis legalization, some lawmakers still skeptical

Comments and questions raised on Tuesday during an interim legislative tax policy committee point towards lengthy debates on recreational cannabis legalization in the upcoming legislative session in January. 

Richard Anklam, the president and executive director of the New Mexico Tax Research Institute, told lawmakers that states that were early in legalizing recreational-use cannabis like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California have seen significant tax revenue increases in the past several years. Anklam, using a study from the Tax Foundation, a national think tank, said New Mexico could see roughly $70 million in excise taxes, before factoring in gross receipts taxes, if the state legalizes cannabis for recreational use. 

While not as common, Anklam said some states who have recently legalized recreational-use cannabis have developed tax models based on potency instead of by volume of what is sold. He said, the potential increase in tax revenue may not become the state’s saving grace, but that it would make a significant impact. 

“What’s the marijuana market worth? It’s worth a lot,” Anklam said. “Most states can’t fund highly significant portions of their government with it, but every little bit helps.”

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Ultra Health, a New Mexico medical cannabis production company, told lawmakers that despite the large amounts of possible tax money going to the state, current restrictions on cannabis production would not be conducive to a cannabis boom. 

Rodriguez has long been a vocal critic of the state’s Department of Health’s restrictions on how many plants producers can grow.

NM cannabis producer challenges new DOH rules

A high-profile medical cannabis producer filed a petition in a state district court last week, asking a judge to invalidate rules recently put in place by the New Mexico Department of Health. 

In the petition, lawyers for cannabis producer Ultra Health argued that many of the recently adopted rules regarding plant and product testing, product labels and facility safety standards are “arbitrary and capricious.”

Last year, the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, which is part of the DOH, started the rule change process with a series of public meetings, which carried over to early this year. The rules, which range from pesticide and chemical testing to reciprocity for already approved cannabis patients from other states, went into effect earlier this month. But Ultra Health’s petition focuses on the new standards for producers, some of which the petition says would increase the financial burdens for patients. 

“Producers, who already pay well over $100,000 per year for their license and are precluded by federal law from taking any income tax deductions, will have to pay for the increased testing burden and will pass along the costs to patients,” the petition reads. 

A DOH spokesman wouldn’t say if or when the department would respond to the request to annul the new rules. 

“The Department of Health does not comment on pending litigation,” DOH spokesman David Morgan said. 

Arguably a perennial thorn in the side of the department, Ultra Health and its CEO Duke Rodriguez have filed numerous legal actions against the state over issues like the legality of displaying a cannabis plant at the state fair and increasing the number of plants producers can grow. Brian Egolf, who also serves as the state’s speaker of the House, is one of two lawyers who filed the petition.  

Testing and labels 

The new rules from the DOH spell out specific standards for testing plants for fungus, pesticides and heavy metals. But in the petition, Ultra Health’s lawyers argued that the department failed to show evidence that the safe level of contaminants is based on studies or science.  

“While Petitioner Ultra Health agrees that some testing is necessary to protect the safety of cannabis patients, DOH’s rules do not draw the necessary connection between the arbitrarily chosen testing parameters and specific measurements of patient safety,” the petition states. 

The petition also asserts that the DOH simply copied regulations from other states like Colorado and Oregon, where both medical and recreational-use cannabis are legal.

Medical cannabis qualified patient clarification bill breezes through committee

The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted in favor of a bill that would specify that only New Mexico residents can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. 

All but one member voted to approve Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino’s SB 139, which Ortiz y Pino said is an attempt to “clarify” that a qualified medical cannabis patient must be a resident of New Mexico. 

Up until last year, the statutory definition of a qualified patient included the words “resident of New Mexico.” Ortiz y Pino told the committee that one of his bills last year struck those words and replaced them with “person.” He also told the panel that his intention was to establish a path towards reciprocity with other medical cannabis states.  

“Not being a lawyer, I don’t understand how that wasn’t clear,” he said. Ortiz y Pino’s bill last year, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law, had a separate definition for reciprocal patients. Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel helped to present the bill and answer questions. She told the committee that one of her bigger concerns, other than having enough medical cannabis for New Mexico patients, is that residents of Texas are getting New Mexico cannabis patient cards and taking cannabis across state lines, which is against federal law. 

“We have now essentially given license to non residents to transport a controlled substance across our state borders,” Kunkel told the committee. 

Kunkel said there are currently more than 600 patients enrolled in New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program who are residents of other states and one person from Mexico with a pending application. For context, there are about a dozen counties in the state with fewer patients.

Medical cannabis patient asks judge to allow cannabis on house arrest

An Albuquerque-based attorney, who also serves in the state Senate, wants a judge to weigh-in on whether those on house arrest should have access to medical cannabis. 

The attorney and state lawmaker Jacob Candelaria, on behalf of his client Joe Montaño, filed a writ of mandamus, or a request for a ruling, in state district court, asking a judge to order Bernalillo County to allow those in custody to use medical cannabis if they are part of the state’s program. 

In his court filing, Candelaria argued that Montaño has a right to “adequate and reasonable medical care” while in custody. Candelaria also argued that state law says, “Medical Cannabis shall be considered the equivalent of the use of any other medication under the direction of a physician and shall not be considered to constitute the use of an illicit substance,” and therefore his client should be allowed access to his medical cannabis. 

According to New Mexico’s Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, which was updated during last year’s legislative session, medical cannabis patients are protected—with some exceptions—from discrimination for using medical cannabis. When mentioning incarceration though, the law seems open to interpretation.    

“A person who is serving a period of probation or parole or who is in the custody or under the supervision of the state or a local government pending trial as part of a community supervision program shall not be penalized for conduct allowed under the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act.” NM Stat § 26-2B-10

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the Senate bill that added sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. He previously told NM Political Report that the custody provision was aimed at those in pretrial services or those on probation or parole, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office agreed. 

Now Candelaria, who is also a medical cannabis patient, is challenging that thinking with the financial help of one of New Mexico’s more prominent medical cannabis producers, which is led by one of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program’s most vocal critics.

Cannabis producer says state is pricing out smaller producers, limiting access to medicine

Dueling press releases over medical cannabis fees show the continuing, contentious relationship between a medical cannabis producer and the New Mexico Department of Health. The producer, Ultra Health, has long argued, often in court, that state mandated plant limits for producers should be higher. 

In a press release issued last week, Ultra Health argued that even with the latest plant increase to 1,750, the state’s fee structure discourages producers from growing the maximum amount of plants. Making it harder for producers to grow the maximum amount of plants, Ultra Health argued, will impact patients.  

“Under the new fee schedule, it will be impossible for all producers to meet the 1,750 maximum and cultivate an adequate supply of medicine for patients,” the Ultra Health release read. 

The DOH recently changed fees for producers to a graduated structure. The cost per plant significantly increases for producers after 1,000. According to Ultra Health’s data, only 12 of the 34 licensed producers paid $180,000 for the maximum 1,750 plants.

Additional cannabis producer asks to intervene in lawsuit over plant count

A potential new party to a lawsuit filed against the New Mexico Department of Health could further complicate the issue of how much medical cannabis is enough for the state. 

Medical cannabis producer R. Greenleaf has asked a state judge to allow the company to intervene in a lawsuit filed by three other medical cannabis companies that argue the state’s mandated limit on cannabis plants should be raised to better meet demands. R. Greenleaf, through its lawyer, argued that the three producers calling for a higher plant limit are not representative of the rest of the medical cannabis industry. Earlier this year, R. Greenleaf submitted its own study to the DOH and argued that producers need less than 1,500 plants to adequately supply patients with cannabis. 

The lawsuit, filed by producers Ultra Health, Sacred Garden and G & G Genetics, argues that the most recent plant limit increase did not go far enough and that the DOH did not use reliable data to reach the current plant limit of 1,750. The lawsuit says the state did not account for things like additional qualifying conditions and a recent court ruling that allows non-residents of New Mexico to become medical cannabis patients. 

“The New Mexico Department of Health and Secretary [Kathyleen] Kunkel have promulgated an administrative rule that violates a valid, un-appealed order from the First Judicial District Court,” the initial lawsuit read. “The rule also contradicts the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act and defeats the purpose and fulfillment of that statute.”  

The DOH has not filed a response yet, but the request by R. Greenleaf to intervene implies a disagreement amongst producers about whether New Mexico has, or is headed towards a shortage of medical cannabis.

Judge: State still can’t deny medical cannabis cards to out-of-state residents

A judge reaffirmed his ruling that out-of-state residents are eligible for medical cannabis cards on Monday. State District Court Judge Bryan Biedscheid again ordered the state Department of Health to provide medical cannabis cards to those non-New Mexico residents who qualify for the state’s program. The state had previously provided cards to three non-residents. But it had not given cards to other non-residents not part of the initial court filing. Monday, the judge also ordered DOH to begin giving cards to other non-residents who qualify for the program.

Amid back and forth court filings, DOH not issuing medical cannabis cards to non-residents

The issue of whether non-residents of New Mexico can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is still not settled. A flurry of three motions were filed in three days in a civil case over whether non-New Mexico residents are eligible for state medical cannabis cards. The New Mexico Department of Health filed a motion last week asking a state judge to reconsider his decision to compel the state to issue medical cannabis cards to anyone with a qualifying condition, regardless of where they live. On the same day, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and DOH jointly filed a motion asking a judge to stay, or hold off on, his order for DOH to issue cards to non-residents. Then, on Monday, the three petitioners who originally argued they were due medical cannabis cards even though they live outside New Mexico filed a motion calling for the program’s director to be held in contempt of court. 

The court case started in July when two Texas residents and an Arizona resident who is the CEO and president of a New Mexico medical cannabis asked a judge to force the state to issue the three petitioners medical cards.

Judge rules non-residents can get medical cannabis cards

Out of state residents who qualify as a medical cannabis patient are now eligible to get a New Mexico medical cannabis card. 

A state district judge ruled Thursday that the New Mexico Department of Health must issue medical cannabis cards to qualified patients, regardless of where they live full-time. Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a back-and-forth between a medical cannabis producer and state officials—including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham—over whether a recent change in law opened the state’s program to non-residents. 

Though the judge ruled that DOH would have to start issuing cards to non-residents, the governor’s office said they aren’t giving up. 

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the governor’s office plans to appeal the decision, but not before he took a shot at one of the petitioners in the case, Duke Rodriguez, who is an Arizona resident and also the president and CEO of the prominent medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. “We remain of the opinion that New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program should not be bulldozed by an out-of-state litigant operating with his own financial interests at heart rather than those of the state’s medical program or of the many New Mexicans who depend upon it,” Stelnicki said in a statement. “Today’s decision contradicts both the intent of the legislative sponsor and the interpretation of the New Mexico Department of Health, and the state plans to appeal the decision.”

Rodriguez declined to comment on what he called a “personal attack,” but that he’s ultimately happy with the decision    

“There was a lot of good testimonies from both sides today, but I think the judge did a superb job of refining the issues down to one core issue—that if you were to remove the word cannabis from the discussion this becomes an issue of treating it like any other medical care,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez is one of the three petitioners, all of whom reside primarily in other states, who asked the court to compel DOH to issue cards to non-residents. DOH did not officially deny the applications from the three petitioners, but the department placed their applications on hold until they could show a valid New Mexico identification card address. 

David Morgan, a spokesman for DOH, said the department hasn’t determined whether they will start approving applications that come from out of state residents. 

“We are considering how to proceed given the judge’s ruling and the fact that an appeal is forthcoming,” Morgan said. 

If DOH does start issuing cards to non-residents, the next question is whether the state can adequately supply patients with enough cannabis. 

Plant counts for producers has long been an issue, specifically involving Rodriguez and DOH. 

For much of the Medical Cannabis Program’s existence, producers were only allowed to have 450 plants at any given time.

State judge says DOH will have to issue medical cannabis cards to out-of-state residents

A state district court judge on Monday ordered the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to start issuing medical cannabis cards to individuals who qualify, regardless of where they live. 

The question of whether non-residents of New Mexico could become medical cannabis patients started when major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law went into effect. One minor word replacement drastically changed who could become a patient, argued Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. Before July 2019, the law stated that qualified patients must be a resident of New Mexico. Now, the law defines a qualified patient as a “person.” Rodriguez’s company bought both internet and radio ads promoting the change. But the Department of Health, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program, along with the governor and at least one legislator, argued the intention of the law was never to open the program up to non-residents. 

Now, barring a compelling argument from DOH, the state could be forced to expand eligibility to anyone from across the country. 

The law is clear

In his ruling Monday morning, Santa Fe district Judge Bryan Biedscheid wrote that the law is clear.