Medical cannabis patient asks judge to rule on purchase limits

A New Mexico medical cannabis patient is challenging state rules for medical cannabis purchase limits. 

Jason Barker, a medical cannabis patient and advocate, filed a request in Santa Fe’s First Judicial District Court earlier this month, asking a judge to compel the state’s Medical Cannabis Program and Cannabis Control Division to allow medical cannabis patients to purchase the same amount of cannabis as commercial cannabis customers will be allowed to purchase early next year. 

Barker’s lawyer, Jacob Candelaria, is also a New Mexico state senator and has represented medical cannabis patients and producers in the past. One of Candelaria’s clients in the past has been medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, which has a history of filing lawsuits against the state over medical cannabis rules and regulations. Ultra Health’s president and CEO Duke Rodriguez told NM Political Report that the company has offered financial support for Barker’s case. 

“It’s an important patients’ rights issue in which we fully agree with Mr. Barker and his attorney, so we would be shirking our responsibility not to offer support,” Rodriguez said. “I am fully expecting we will not be the only licensed producer offering support on the matter.”

Candelaria said he could not discuss the issue of payment for his services, but stressed that his client in the matter is Barker and not Ultra Health. 

In a statement Candelaria accused the state of being more concerned with tax revenue than with medical cannabis patients’ well-being. 

“State regulators are trying to unlawfully discriminate against my client, and deny all medical cannabis patients the rights afforded to them under the Cannabis Regulation Act,” Candelaria said. “The law is clear, all medical cannabis patients may purchase at least two-ounces of medical cannabis at any one time, tax free, beginning on June 29, 2021.

Conflicting views on medical cannabis as a prescription

Amid a pending New Mexico Supreme Court case concerning medical cannabis taxes, one state cabinet official seems to have a different view on whether medical cannabis recommendations from medical professionals are the same as traditional prescriptions, at least when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine priority. 

According to an email from January of this year, obtained by NM Political Report through a public records request, New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Tracie Collins believed that medical cannabis dispensary workers should be viewed similarly to pharmacists and that medical providers “prescribe medical cannabis” when it came to priority for COVID-19 vaccinations. 

This view differs greatly from an argument the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department has put forward in an ongoing legal case regarding gross receipts taxes and whether they should be allowed to be deducted from medical cannabis sales. 

Collins’ apparent view that medical cannabis recommendations are essentially the same as prescriptions came up in a series of emails between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s staff and Department of Health officials regarding where medical cannabis dispensary workers fall in terms of COVID-19 vaccination priority. The department’s deputy secretary Laura Parajon  replied to the email chain with Collins’ take. 

“Hi, sorry for yet another weighing in opinion. I consulted with Secretary Collins, and she also believes they are like pharmacists because providers do prescribe medical cannabis,” Parajon wrote. “I am adding her to the conversation.”

While the seemingly innocuous reply was in the context of vaccine priority, Collins’ reported opinion that medical professionals “prescribe” medical cannabis goes against the argument TRD has repeatedly put forth in a still pending legal case as a reason medical cannabis producers should not be allowed to deduct gross receipts taxes they paid to the state. DOH spokesman Jim Walton told NM Political Report that the context of the email conversation is important. 

“The question Deputy Secretary Parajon and Secretary Collins was asked was whether people who worked in a medical cannabis dispensary are considered to be within COVID-19 vaccination phase 1A,” Walton said.

Medical cannabis producers call for increased plant limits

Just days after New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a recreational-use cannabis bill into law and less than 90 days before the law goes into effect, some in the existing medical cannabis industry want state officials to immediately increase the amount of cannabis they can grow. 

A group of five New Mexico medical cannabis producers sent a letter with their concerns about the rollout of recreational-use cannabis to the heads of the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department and the state’s Department of Health. The letter from the medical cannabis producers said that even after the law goes into effect, a lack of new promulgated rules could result in increased medical sales, which, the producers argued, could also mean a shortage of medical cannabis for existing patients. 

“Therefore, the undersigned producers request that DOH and RLD raise the plant limitation until the full commercial market can be phased in,” the letter reads. The group of producers calling for an increase in allowed plants include Ultra Health, which has long called for an increase in medical cannabis production limits or no limits at all, and Sacred Garden, which is currently involved in a legal battle with the state over gross receipts taxes on medical cannabis. The other three producers who signed onto the letter are G&G Genetics, Budding Hope and Kure. 

The Department of Health oversees the current Medical Cannabis Program. Regulation and Licensing will oversee all but the medical cannabis patient registry after the law goes into effect on June 29. 

In their letter, the producers reasoned that after June 29, existing Department of Health rules for purchase limits will be invalid.

NM judge rules medical cannabis use allowed while on house arrest

A New Mexico state district judge ruled this week that detainees in Bernalillo County’s house arrest program are allowed to use medical cannabis while serving out their sentence.  

In her ruling, Second Judicial District Judge Lucy Solimon wrote that Bernalillo County’s Community Custody Program (CCP) is, in effect, the same as parole. New Mexico’s Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, as of 2019, allows medical cannabis patients who are on parole or probation to continue their use of medical cannabis. 

“Although CCP is not specifically mentioned in the Compassionate Use Act, [Bernalillo] County fails to demonstrate that CCP should be treated differently than probation or parole,” Solomon wrote. “Therefore, it appears as though the Compassionate Use Act does apply to defendants on CCP as it does to defendants on probation or parole. The issue of whether medical cannabis patients on house arrest can use medical cannabis goes back to 2019 when Albuquerque resident Joe Montaño was sentenced to the Community Custody Program after his seventh drunk driving conviction. Montaño, who was already a registered medical cannabis patient, previously told NM Political Report that he didn’t hide his cannabis use from his case worker during a home visit.

How Arizona’s cannabis legalization proposition might impact NM

Election Day in New Mexico resulted in a slight expansion of the state’s Senate, and a very slightly reduced, but still large, House Democratic majority. But while New Mexico voters cast their votes on Tuesday, voters in neighboring Arizona voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational-use cannabis, something the New Mexico Legislature has not been able to pull off, despite years of attempts. 

Arizona may be at least a year away from seeing any significant tax revenue from legalized cannabis, but the proposition included an expungement provision and will allow medical cannabis dispensaries to start selling it for recreational-use by next spring, just as the New Mexico Legislature is set to wrap up their regular legislative session. 

Listen: A special episode of Growing Forward

Whether social and restorative justice or tax revenue is most important seems to be a matter of opinion among proponents and advocates. But most agree that it is imperative that New Mexico lawmakers legalize recreational-use cannabis next year if they want to achieve parity with the neighboring state to the west.  

What’s at stake

In the past several years, legalization efforts have stalled in the Senate, which has been more consevative on many issues, including cannabis. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said he’s optimistic the Senate seats Democrats picked up on Election Day will help get a cannabis legalization bill to the governor’s desk. 

“No question our landscape has changed internally in the Senate with seven new members and voters having spoken loudly and clearly,” Wirth said. “One of the issues that I’ve been very cognizant about is not losing the opportunity to move forward with recreational cannabis.

Growing Forward: Education

In this week’s episode of Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, we take a look at education. 

Dispensary employees must reach a certain level of required certification, but what kind of knowledge should patients expect from those who are dispensing their medication? Shanon Jaramillo runs a local cannabis education and staffing agency. She said her goal is to make sure New Mexico implements a new and rigorous education program in order to make sure dispensary employees are giving the best advice to new patients who may have never used cannabis before. Her concern is that the state legalizes recreational-use cannabis without also implementing a rigorous education requirement for medical cannabis dispensary employees.   

“I’m fearful without that educational bridge, I’m fearful that the program will take on the likeness of other medical programs that we’ve seen in other states and that will start to dwindle,” Jaramillo said. 

Part of education for both patients and non-patients  is to make it clear what medical cannabis is designed to do. An often misunderstood issue with medical cannabis is that state law does not recognize it as a substance that can cure diseases or other medical conditions.

NM judge orders state health department to loosen medical cannabis reciprocity rules

A district court judge in Santa Fe ruled Tuesday that reciprocal medical cannabis patients can buy, possess and use medical cannabis in New Mexico, regardless of whether their identification matches the state where their medical recommendation to use cannabis came from. 

First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson’s order will also allow New Mexicans to get a recommendation to use medical cannabis from another state and become a reciprocal patient in New Mexico. 

The ruling came after New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health filed a petition asking the court to compel the state’s Department of Health to allow anyone with a medical authorization to use medical cannabis to become a reciprocal patient. 

Ultra Health’s attorney, Jacob Candelaria, who is also a Democratic state senator and himself a medical cannabis patient, told NM Political Report that Wilson’s decision will also allow patients to seek medical authorization from another state or from a tribal jurisdiction.    

“The court held that a reciprocal patient can have a proof of authorization and an ID from different jurisdictions, because the department was trying to say that, that you could only become a reciprocal patient if you had your proof of authorization, and your ID from the same jurisdiction,” Candelaria said. 

In his ruling, Wilson said the state DOH had been honoring identification cards issued by a different jurisdiction than respective medical cannabis recommendations. But last month the DOH instructed dispensary operators to only accept identification cards and cannabis recommendations from the same jurisdiction and only recommendations in the form of a card were to be accepted. Last week the department also filed an emergency rule change enacting the guidance they gave to dispensaries weeks before.  

Wilson noted, in his ruling, that prior to the department changing their rules, many reciprocal patients came from Texas, which has a more restrictive medical cannabis program than New Mexico. But some New Mexico residents, Wilson wrote, had the option of becoming a medical cannabis patient in nearby states with even fewer restrictions than New Mexico. 

“In essence, a New Mexico resident could bypass or circumvent the more stringent requirements for becoming a ‘qualified patient’ and elect to participate in the program as a ‘reciprocal patient,’” Wilson wrote. 

DOH spokesman David Morgan told NM Political Report that the department has already complied with the court order, but would not say whether the department plans on appealing the decision. Part of Wilson’s order was also that the DOH re-enroll any reciprocal patients who were removed from the program for not complying with the department’s temporary rule change. 

“The Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program has complied with the order,” Morgan said.

Growing Forward: Who’s running things?

Today marks the release of the 4th episode of Growing Forward, a collaboration between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund. 

In today’s episode, we look at the business side of medical cannabis and talk to a couple of high-profile cannabis business owners. 

One of the most recognizable names in the state’s medical cannabis program is Darren White. 

White is a former law enforcement officer and the former head of public safety for both the City of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico. He ended his time as Secretary of Public Safety under then-Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, after Johnson publicly said he was in favor of legalizing cannabis. 

At the time, White was staunchly opposed to legalizing cannabis and said he was even opposed to medical cannabis. But now White is the head of PurLife, one of the more prominent cannabis producers in the state. 

White told Growing Forward that he had an “eye-opening experience” after a friend suggested White try a cannabis topical to help combat chronic pain. 

“I was just wrong about it,” White said. “It really does help a lot of people and their quality of life.”

This week’s episode also explores how the state expanded the maximum number of plants producers can grow after a legal battle with another prominent producer. 

But this week’s episode also examines what it’s like to be a producer through the eyes of a female producer, in what seems to be a male-dominated industry. 

If you haven’t listened to the first three episodes, you can catch up below or search for Growing Forward at anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you usually get your podcasts. 

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.