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.

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.

Cannabis legalization stalls in committee

A recreational cannabis legalization bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, while a bill that would limit who can become a medical cannabis patient moved on. Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who has pushed for legalization in various ways for a number of years. 

Ortiz y Pino’s legalization bill, SB 115, by far received the most debate and criticism, particularly from the committee’s chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes, who has long pushed for decriminalization, but has said he does not favor full legalization, said he was more concerned with problematic language in the almost 200-page bill. He spent more than 30 minutes going through some of his concerns, one of which was fairness. 

“This bill reflects one of the weaknesses in this state which is the propensity to pick winners and losers,” Cervantes said. 

He meticulously picked apart the bill and cited provisions that he said seemed unfair like a section that aims to include organized labor in cannabis production companies and a section that would create a subsidy program for indigent medical cannabis patients. Cervantes also said he didn’t like that the bill would allow those with previous drug convictions to get into the industry, even invoking the name of infamous drug lord El Chapo. 

The bill was tabled on a 6-3 vote.

Amended cannabis on tribal lands bill heads to the House

An amended version of a Senate bill that would allow agreements between the New Mexico Department of Health and Native American groups about medical cannabis was approved Wednesday by the Senate 25-16. SB 271, sponsored by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, received plenty of scrutiny from both Democratic and Republican members. 

Most of the concern over Shendo’s bill was that it could result in tribal communities selling medical cannabis to non-tribal members, causing de facto legalization in areas of the state. 

That concern seemed to be shared by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. He successfully passed an amendment to the bill that specifies that any medical cannabis program a tribal community creates would only be for members.  

“Everytime I asked the sponsor of the bill about the necessity of this, he kept going back to the number of tribal members who participate in medical cannabis,” Ivey Soto said. If the intent is to open this to tribal members, this amendment allows that to happen. If the intent of this bill is to get around the plant count, get around the licences, to blow open the doors of the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, then you wouldn’t want this amendment.”

Shendo, a member of the Jemez Pueblo, said he would not support the amendment, although it’s unclear exactly who supported it as it came down to a voice vote. 

The bill heads to the House next. 

Shendo sponsored a similar bill last year that did not make it through both chambers before the session ended.

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.

Bill would protect cannabis patients who live on federal trust land

A New Mexico state senator is trying for a second time to pass a bill that would protect medical cannabis patients who live on tribal land. 

Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, said his SB 271 would protect patients from federal law enforcement scrutiny. 

“We have native patients that are under this program and so when they’re off the reservation they’re legal, but as soon as they get on the reservation, federal trust land, it’s illegal because the federal government still has that as a federal violation,” Shendo said. 

Shendo said he hopes that an agreement between the state Department of Health and tribal leaders will at least lower the chances of federal charges for medical cannabis patients who live on tribal land. 

“We had a meeting with the feds and they felt that having some agreement with the state would be really helpful,” Shendo said. 

The state’s medical cannabis law allows for patients to purchase up to about eight ounces of dried flower or buds in a rolling three month period. And even though the tribal land is physically in New Mexico, the state government has little say in what happens on or to that land. 

Shendo said he isn’t sure how many medical cannabis patients live on tribal land, but that the change is still long overdue. 

“This is an issue that we probably should have taken care of when the [Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use] act was enacted, but it wasn’t so we’re just trying to make that correction,” Shendo said. 

The Senate Committee’s Committee, which determines whether bills fit into the governor’s legislative agenda during 30-day sessions, has not ruled the bill germane yet. But, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive message earlier this week, authorizing the Senate to consider the bill. 

Shendo introduced a similar bill last year that only made it through one committee before the session ended. 

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.

Ruling means state may owe millions in tax refunds to cannabis producers

The state of New Mexico’s Taxation and Revenue Department could be on the hook for millions of dollars in tax refunds to medical cannabis producers after a state Court of Appeals ruling made earlier this week. 

In her opinion filed on Tuesday, Court of Appeals Judge Monica Zamora wrote that medical cannabis producers should be able deduct gross receipts taxes just as pharmacies do for sales of prescription drugs. Under the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, the state’s medical cannabis law, medical cannabis is not prescribed to patients. Instead, qualified medical professionals issue a recommendation to the state Department of Health for each patient. 

Zamora cited the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which says that restricted drugs “shall be dispensed only . . .

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.