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; }
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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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Should the state increase regulation of homegrown medical cannabis?

During a New Mexico Department of Health public hearing earlier this month that allowed public input into proposed rule changes to the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, a major player in the industry raised concerns with some patients. 

Willie Ford, managing director of the medical cannabis consulting company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, told DOH officials he wanted more state oversight of patients who grow their own cannabis.   

“PPLs need more regulation, they need more oversight for public safety issues,” Ford said. “These are significant and serious issues that affect the general public and their safety.”

PPLs, or Personal Production Licenses, allow patients who qualify to grow up to four plants for their own use. He voice concern with a proposed rule change that would allow PPL holders to take their harvested cannabis to licensed manufacturers to produce extracts and concentrates. Four plants, Ford said, could equal about 20 pounds a year per PPL. 

Ford’s comments, and the online rebuttals from PPL patients that came after, highlight an issue that DOH will likely be forced to address, especially before New Mexico legalizes cannabis for recreational use: whether PPL patients should be regulated similar to Licensed Non-Profit Producers who sell products through their dispensaries. 

Josh McCurdy with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance told NM Political Report that he didn’t appreciate the suggestion that PPL patients are doing anything other than growing their own medicine, often in places where dispensaries are far and few between. 

“We need more competition,” McCurdy, who lives and grows his own cannabis in Ruidoso, said. “That’s the reason it’s $10 a gram in Albuquerque and it goes from $12 to $15 in rural areas.”

He estimated his homegrown cannabis costs about $5 to $6 a gram to grow. 

McCurdy disagreed with Ford’s claim that four plants harvested around 4 to five times a year could yield about 20 pounds. 

“I’ve been by a few hundred PPL grows in this state and 99 percent of them are struggling just to yield a couple of ounces every four months,” McCurdy said. 

McCurdy dismissed a common sentiment he said he’s heard from producers—that home growers contribute to illegal cannabis sales. 

“The producers have put it in a way, where they like to do some fear mongering and act like the PPLs are the illicit black market,” McCurdy said.

Does NM cannabis law extend to non-residents?

A recent expansion of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis through rule changes will likely result in a higher number of patients in New Mexico. But a law that goes into effect on Friday could also result in a new pool of patients—non-residents of New Mexico.  

Some changes to the law include protections from discrimination for patients, reciprocity with other states’ medical cannabis programs and an extended life span of medical cannabis cards. But perhaps the most significant and, until now, overlooked change to the law is who qualifies for medical cannabis cards. As of Friday, the definition of a “qualified patient” will no longer include the term “resident of New Mexico.” That term was replaced with “person.”

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, noticed the change in language and launched a campaign targeted towards residents of Texas who live close to New Mexico.