NM deems medical cannabis essential during COVID-19 restrictions

As New Mexicans brace themselves for an unknown period of restricted over the counter medicine purchases due to the growing number of positive COVID-19 tests, the state’s Department of Health said medical cannabis patients can rest assured that their access to medicine won’t be interrupted. 

In a letter to medical cannabis producers, patients and other stakeholders, Medical Cannabis Program Director Dr. Dominick Zurlo said medical cannabis Licensed Non Profit Producers (LNPP) qualify as essential services under Secretary of Health Kathyleen Kunkel’s latest emergency health order. 

“Accordingly, LNPPs are not required to limit operations pursuant to that order,” Zurlo wrote. Medical cannabis patient cards that are set to expire between March 11 and June 13 will get a 90 day extension, according to Zurlo. He also encouraged patients to use telemedicine to consult with a medical professional for new patient and card renewal recommendations. Anticipating a possible staffing shortage for producers, Zurlo said the department is also “temporarily suspending” criminal background checks for new employees until producers send in their relicensing applications, which are due in June. #mc_embed_signup{background:#fff; clear:left; font:14px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif; }
/* Add your own Mailchimp form style overrides in your site stylesheet or in this style block.

NM Supreme Court tasked with cannabis GRT issue

Should medical cannabis producers continue to get a tax break? That’s the question the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department has asked the state’s high court. 

On behalf of TRD, the state’s Attorney General’s office filed a petition Monday with the New Mexico Supreme Court asking for clarification about whether medical cannabis is exempt from gross receipts tax, like prescription drugs. 

In 2014, New Mexico cannabis producer Sacred Garden asked the TRD for a refund on the gross receipts tax the company paid that year. That request was denied by TRD. But the state Court of Appeals agreed with the cannabis company and ruled that medical cannabis indeed qualifies for the same tax exemption as prescription drugs. In the state’s petition to the state Supreme Court, Special Assistant Attorney General Cordelia Friedman argued that because federal law prevents doctors from writing prescriptions for cannabis, it does not fall under the same tax exempt category as prescription drugs in New Mexico. 

“The term ‘prescription’ does not appear in the [Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use] Act or the regulation promulgated to provide guidance for individuals wanting to obtain ‘registry identification cards’ to receive medical marijuana,” Friedman wrote. 

The state Court of Appeals ruled in January that a recommendation from a doctor to use cannabis to alleviate symptoms of certain medical conditions is essentially the same as a prescription.

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.

Pending cannabis card requests denied after law change

It seems a “typographic error” is to blame for confusion among some who tried to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. 

But besides an incorrect date, the letters themselves also added to the confusion for some who sought to become medical cannabis patients. The program sent a number of denial letters to potential patients who failed to provide proof of New Mexico residency. That’s because their applications were not processed in time.  

Last fall a state district court judge ordered the program to issue patient cards to those who had an approved qualified condition, regardless of whether or not they live in New Mexico. In less than six months, more than 600 people from outside New Mexico managed to get medical cannabis patient cards before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law which specifies the program is only for New Mexico residents. But two patients who reached out to NM Political Report said they were confused by the date on a letter requesting proof of residency sent by the program.   

“Our agency cannot process your application until we have received a New Mexico driver’s license or a New Mexico identification card in your name and a New Mexico mailing address,” the letters read. 

But the two letters NM Political Report reviewed were dated January 20, 2020, about a month before Lujan Grisham signed the law change.

The line between trafficking and transporting

Last August, about four miles east of theNew Mexico-Arizona border, a New Mexico State Police officer clocked a white van heading east going about 12 miles per hour over the posted speed limit in a construction zone. According to the officer’s report, once he pulled the van over and approached the passenger-side window he detected “an overwhelming odor of marijuana.” In fact, the officer wrote in his initial report, “The smell was so strong that I had to move back a bit.” 

The passenger of the van, Cevin Stambough, told the officer he was a New Mexico medical cannabis patient and had about five grams of cannabis on him. Stambough showed the officer the small amount of cannabis, but the officer told Stambough the smell of cannabis was too strong to be the result of just five grams. The officer was right. After a search warrant he reportedly found “10 individual plastic bags of marijuana” along with roughly 2 pounds of cannabis concentrate or extracts. All together, the officer found about 14 pounds of cannabis or cannabis derivatives.

Small wins for cannabis in 2020 legislative session

Cannabis legislation was not a complete loss for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during this year’s legislative session, but it was far from a complete win. Despite almost a year of work from a group assembled by Lujan Grisham to come up with proposed legislation for cannabis legalization, the proposal she backed failed early on in the session. The only Lujan Grisham-backed proposal that made it to her desk is a bill that would limit enrollment in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to New Mexico residents. 

During a press conference after the Legislature adjourned on Thursday, Lujan Grisham said she will keep pushing for a safe and comprehensive legalization measure, even if it means changing the state constitution. New Mexico law does not allow for voter initiatives, which is how most states, including Colorado, legalized cannabis. The only way to change law through an election question is to propose a constitutional amendment, and Lujan Grisham said that’s not off the table. 

“I’m open to any number of pathways,” Lujan Grisham told reporters. 

New Mexicans only

SB 139, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, was promoted as a fix to legislation that was passed into law last year.

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.

Medical cannabis qualified patient bill has one last stop before the governor’s desk

A bill aimed at limiting who can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program was approved in committee Monday morning and now has one more stop before the governor’s desk. 

The House Health and Human Services Committee passed SB 139 on a 6-1 vote. 

Update: The legislation passed the full House on Monday afternoon. See the story here. The bill would change the law to allow only New Mexico residents who have a qualifying condition to get a medical cannabis patient card. 

Though sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the committee’s chair Democratic Rep. Debbie Armstrong of Albuquerque presented the bill, with the help of Secretary of Health Kathyleen Kunkel as her expert witness. 

Kunkel told the committee that a change in law last year that was aimed at forging a path to reciprocity, or allowing certified medical cannabis patients from other states to purchase and use cannabis in New Mexico, inadvertently resulted in about 600 out-of-state patients enrolled in New Mexico’s program. 

Kunkel said it has been an “administrative burden” on the Department of Health since the state started allowing non-residents to enroll in the program. Plus, she said, she fears that the current law will attract unwanted attention from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“I am concerned that we are tempting the federal government to come in and interfere with our program,” Kunkel said. 

All three Republicans on the committee raised questions and concerns, but ultimately the only dissenting vote came from Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso. Early on in the hearing, Kunkel said there is currently a resident of Mexico enrolled in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program because of the law change.

House minority leader takes issue with special process for medical cannabis bill

An unconventional process for a somewhat controversial medical cannabis bill provoked the ire of the House Republican floor leader Sunday afternoon. 

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, told acting Speaker of the House Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, he felt like House Democrats have been changing rules for the majority’s benefit. 

The bill in question, SB 139, would change state law to only allow New Mexico residents to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. The problem is, the bill is also directly tied to a state Court of Appeals case where Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, represents the appellees. In attempt to eliminate the perception of a conflict of interest, Egolf said in a letter last week, he would remove himself from the legislative process for that bill. Egolf’s letter asked leaders from the House majority and minority to make the decision about what sort of House committee assignments the Senate bill would get. 

Ely, who Egolf assigned as Speaker Pro Tempore for the assignment process of the bill, told the body on Sunday afternoon that Townsend declined to take part in the process. 

“There was a process proposed that the minority leader and majority leader would try to reach an amicable arrangement as to what committee or committees Senate Bill 139 would be referred to,” Ely said. “The minority leader, as is his right, has decided not to recommend that, so I as the presiding officer will make the referral.”

Townsend took issue with how Ely characterized the letter.

Medical cannabis qualified patient bill moves to the House

A Senate bill that would specify that only New Mexico residents are eligible to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is headed to the House. 

SB 139, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, passed the Senate floor Saturday night by a 32-8 vote. Ortiz y Pino told other Senate members that the bill is an attempt to “plug the hole” that was created in a bill he sponsored last year that was signed into law. 

The bill he sponsored last year, among other changes to the state’s medical cannabis laws, removed the words “resident of New Mexico” from the definition of a qualified patient and replaced them with “person.” Shortly after the law was changed last year, Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, along with two Texas residents, took the state to court after the three were denied medical cannabis patient cards. Rodriguez is an Arizona resident, but according to court documents owns a home and vehicle in New Mexico. Arizona has a medical cannabis program and Texas has a medical program with limited conditions and only allows cannabis with half a percent of THC—a psychoactive substance in cannabis. 

After a state district judge ruled in favor of the three petitioners, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office and the Department of Health took the issue to the Court of Appeals, where it remains pending. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, took issue with the bill and repeated some of the same concerns he brought up in a previous committee hearing. He told a story about a friend of his who suffered through cancer treatment and was unable to benefit from medical cannabis because he lived in Texas.