The state of New Mexico banned gatherings of more than 100 people in an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. The order does not include the closure of public schools or other regular businesses, including offices and grocery stores along with several other exemptions. It instead aims at events that bring together 100 or more people in places like auditoriums, theaters, stadiums, arenas or conference centers. New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel issued the order Thursday a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency. As of Thursday morning, the state reported four presumptive positive tests for COVID-19, all related to out-of-state travel.
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.
Like many low-income seniors in New Mexico, Paul Gibson said, his mother-in-law struggles to pay for her prescription drugs. “She’ll parse out her medications in ways that make no sense; that undermine her health all the time,” Gibson, co-founder of the advocacy group Retake Our Democracy, told state lawmakers Friday. “Seniors should not face those kinds of decisions.” The state is taking steps to change that. Following the Trump administration’s announcement in December of proposed federal rules that would allow states to import prescription medications from Canada, New Mexico lawmakers and health officials are pushing legislation to initiate the process of bringing in Canadian drugs.
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.
A group tasked with creating a proposal to legalize cannabis in New Mexico met for the second time to discuss specifics of licensing and regulation as well as how to maintain a medical cannabis program.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Working Group on Marijuana Legalization met for more than five hours on Wednesday and heard from a couple dozen members of the public.
This is for the naysayers
Pushes for cannabis legalization in the Legislature are nothing new. For years there have been attempts to legalize cannabis by changing the state constitution, as constitutional amendments do not require approval by the governor, and former Gov. Susana Martinez vocally opposed the idea. But the last legislative session showed increased signs of success for proponents. Two different bills, one that pushed for state-run stores and sponsored by Senate Republicans and another without a state-run store provision, saw increased support.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a legalization bill in the House and he is now a member of the working group. Martinez said he thinks the group’s “cognitive diversity” will help convince lawmakers who are against legalization, but still open to the idea.
“I think that out of this process will emerge consensus across the board,” Martinez said.
The New Mexico Department of Health on Friday heard public testimony from medical cannabis patients, patient advocates and cannabis producers about proposed changes to the Medical Cannabis Program. More than 30 people shared their thoughts about a new proposed plant limit, increased producer fees and extending the life of patients’ medical cannabis cards.
While almost all of the speakers addressed the specific rule changes, many also brought up a barrage of other issues like oversight of those who hold a Personal Production License and grow their own cannabis, opening the licensure for more producers and more testing of cannabis for contaminants or pesticides.
The divergence from issues published in the proposed rule change seemed to show that some in the medical cannabis community don’t feel like they are being heard by the Department of Health.
Former Department of Health chief records officer Daniel Jacobs told NM Political Report that previous department leadership is partly to blame. Jacobs retired from DOH shortly after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office. He said throughout the eight years of Susana Martinez’s time as governor, the Medical Cannabis Program and DOH shut itself off from the public.
“For the last nine years we’ve been under an administration of exclusion,” Jacobs said. “We [now] have a governor who is about inclusion and she’s going to move the state forward and the program forward to benefit everybody, not just a select few.”
Jacobs said he was recruited to work in the department by then-cabinet secretary Lujan Grisham under then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
Medical Cannabis Program Director Kenny Vigil said DOH and Medical Cannabis Program staff hear from patients about twice a year when the board meets to discuss adding qualifying conditions to the program.
“One of the things we can certainly do better at is improving dialogue with patients,” Vigil said.
Since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a task force to study possible cannabis legalization measures last month, some in the medical cannabis community expressed concerns about proper representation.
The Cannabis Legalization Working Group, the governor’s office said, will work this year and send their recommendations to Lujan Grisham before next year’s 30-day legislative session. Lujan Grisham announced earlier this year that she would add legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use to the call next year. In even numbered years, all legislation related to budgetary matters are considered “germane”, but the governor can give permission for legislators to discuss other issues.
Some medical cannabis patients and patient advocates have long warned lawmakers of passing legalization proposals that might harm the medical cannabis program. Now, at least one patient and even medical cannabis producers are scratching their heads wondering why the Cannabis Legalization Working Group does not include actual patients.
Patients want a seat at the table
Ginger Grider is a medical cannabis patient and works with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance. Grider, who lives in Portales, said rural parts of the state regularly see shortages or outages in local dispensaries.
As expected, the head of New Mexico’s Department of Health approved opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition to use medical cannabis. In an announcement on Thursday, DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel said she accepted a recommendation from the state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to include opioid use disorder and five other conditions as reasons to grant a medical card for medical cannabis use. “Adding these conditions to the Medical Cannabis Program provides medical providers new tools for relieving symptoms that may otherwise be difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to relieve through conventional means,” Kunkel said in a statement. “Thousands of New Mexicans may find relief from their symptoms through medical cannabis that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Kunkel also approved Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorder and three degenerative neurological disorders—Friedreich’s ataxia, Lewy body disease, and spinal muscular atrophy. The approval of those six conditions is the latest change in the Medical Cannabis Program since the change in administrations.
The New Mexico Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of measles in nearly five years. Last week, DOH said a one-year-old child from Sierra County is the first New Mexican infected with the disease since December of 2014. “We have worked with the clinic that treated the child and the patient’s family to identify people who may have been exposed so we can prevent more cases of the disease,” DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel announced Friday. “We encourage everyone to check whether you and your family have been vaccinated to protect against measles. Immunization is the best tool we have to protect people from measles.”
Measles is highly infectious and was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, thanks to the development of a vaccine in the 1960s and a concerted effort by the Centers for Disease Control beginning in the late 1970s.
The New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) has until August to decide how much medical cannabis producers are allowed to grow at any given time. Until recently, Licensed Non-Profit Producers (LNPP) could have up to 450 plants, but in March the state issued an emergency rule allowing producers to grow five times that amount—or up to 2,500 plants—after a drawn-out lawsuit. Public records obtained by NM Political Report reveal some of the discussions between producers, patients and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office during the days leading up to the emergency rule. Many of those conversations were redacted due to executive and attorney-client privilege. But, the documents still shed light on the decision by DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel to temporarily increase the plant counts.