NM governor intervenes in court case over medical cannabis cards

New Mexico’s governor has officially become a party in a legal battle over whether medical cannabis cards should be issued to out-of-state residents. 

On Wednesday, a state district judge approved Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request to intervene in the case, which arose after a prominent medical cannabis producer challenged the state on wording in a state statute related to who can become a medical cannabis patient in New Mexico. 

In a motion to add Lujan Grisham as an intervening party, her lawyers argued that the governor’s office is better suited than the state Department of Health to address some issues in the case. 

Related: Cannabis legalization task force aims for compromise

“Public safety considerations such as the interstate transportation of marijuana, which is a violation of federal and state law, and diversion concerns are critical state policy matters,” the court filing read. 

Kenny Vigil, the director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, was originally named in court documents but Lujan Grisham’s office argued that Vigil cannot adequately represent the state. 

“[Vigil] lacks authority to address law enforcement concerns, approve regulatory action, or direct healthcare policy for our State,” the court filing read. “Thus, the significant public policy considerations interests at issue cannot be fully addressed by the current parties to this litigation and could be substantially affected or impaired.”

While at a task force convened by the governor to examine cannabis legalization, Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel said the issue is too complex for her department alone. 

“It’s such an important matter,” Kunkel said. “What it could impact is significant. It’s beyond the Department of Health.” 

A lawyer with the department told NM Political Report he could not speak for the governor’s office, but did say Lujan Grisham’s office took an interest in the case because it dealt with “interstate issues.”

The court case goes back to an attempt by New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health to encourage those who qualify as a medical cannabis patient but do not live in New Mexico to apply for a medical card. The company’s reasoning was that a law change removed the term “resident of New Mexico” and replaced it with “person” in the definition of “qualified patient.” 

Almost immediately, the Department of Health dismissed the idea that legislators intended to open the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to residents from other states.

Confusion reigns in calculating methane emissions

No one knows exactly how much methane is released into the atmosphere each year in New Mexico. And with record production in oil and gas for the state of New Mexico, and a governor that wants to transition to clean energy, that’s a big problem. According to EPA data, methane makes up just 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.—but it is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, with eighty times the warming power of carbon dioxide. In 2014, the NOAA documented an alarming methane “hotspot” hovering above the Four Corners area. Subsequent research indicated the methane cloud was in fact due to oil and gas production in the region.

Guv accuses EPA of neglecting duties in PFAS contamination inaction

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham criticized the EPA for its refusal to join the state’s lawsuit against the Air Force for PFAS contamination at two bases in the state. PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) found “significant amounts of PFAS” in the groundwater, under both bases. The Air Force has since discontinued the use of the chemicals.

Agreement on NM probation, parole reforms seems stuck in the mud

Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail. 

The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.

Meet the new members of the Interstate Stream Commission

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently appointed a new director and seven new members to the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). The body, which is tasked with overseeing interstate water agreements and water planning for the state, has a total of nine commissioners, including a director, a chairperson and the state engineer. The new commission members are Bidtak Becker, former executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources in Window Rock, Arizona; New Mexico Acequia Association executive director Paula Garcia, who also serves as chair of the Mora County Commission; Mike Hamman, chief engineer and CEO at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District; Aron Balok, superintendent of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District and secretary and treasurer of the New Mexico chapter of the National Water Resource Association; Gregory Carrasco,a farmer and rancher in Las Cruces who served with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association; hydrogeologist Stacy Timmons, who is program manager at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech in Socorro; and Tanya Trujillo, lower basin project director at the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign. The Governor’s office said the new members represent a diverse set of interests and backgrounds. Carrasco was appointed to bring “an important agricultural perspective to water issues,” according to a press release from the Governor’s Office.

Lujan Grisham ouster of Trujillo raises questions

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decision to fire Education Secretary Karen Trujillo on Monday took a lot of people in New Mexico by surprise, including Trujillo, who said she was blindsided. 

It’s been three days, and some New Mexicans suspect they haven’t been given the real reason Trujillo was fired and why now. 

The administration has said it was about her ability to communicate, manage and meet the governor’s expectations for transforming public education in New Mexico. 

A spokesman initially pointed to the shaky rollout of a signature education program called K-5 Plus across the state, but the administration is beginning to walk back an effort to pin the firing on implementation of that program. Trujillo had pushed back, saying she didn’t get much direction from the governor and that she had raised alarm early on about how difficult K-5 Plus would be to implement immediately, as designed by the Legislature. 

And Trujillo said if communication was deficient, it was on the part of the governor. 

“It would have been nice to have a conversation with the governor where she said what her concerns were so that I could have done something about them, but that conversation never took place,” Trujillo said. Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s director of communications, said Trujillo heard from top administration officials from the governor’s office, including Lujan Grisham herself, about the governor’s frustration with her communications skills and leadership at the Public Education Department — and that Trujillo’s pushback comes from someone “with an axe to grind.”

 “This was not infrequent communication. These concerns were not new. Interventions failed, a change had to be made,” Stelnicki said.

NM cannabis producer, two from Texas asks court to rule on medical cards

Three people, who are not residents of New Mexico, are asking a state district judge to compel the New Mexico Department of Health to allow them to receive New Mexico medical cannabis cards. 

The court filing is the latest in a back-and-forth between New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health and DOH. While Ultra Health is not one of the petitioners, the companies’ president and CEO Duke Rodriguez is one of the three seeking a New Mexico card. 

Rodriguez, a resident of Arizona, and two Texas residents argue that state law allows them access to a New Mexico medical cannabis card and that DOH cannot deny access to the program based on non-residency alone. 

“As of the date of this filing, the Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program has refused to issue registry identification cards to eligible qualified patients, and in so doing it has failed to perform a ministerial non-discretionary duty,” the court filing states. The issue goes back to a bill passed in the 2019 legislative session, and later signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, which made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. One change was in the definition of “qualified patient.” Prior to the changes this year, the law defined a qualified patient as a “resident of New Mexico.” Now, it simply defines a qualified patient as a “person.”

Both  Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, and Lujan Grisham’s office told NM Political Report that the intention of the wording change was to allow for reciprocity with other states with medical cannabis programs. The new law also has a section outlining reciprocity and gives DOH until next year to come up with rules regarding that. 

But the three petitioners argue that the law change would accommodate those in the state for long work assignments, college students or those who spend long periods of time in the state, but do not qualify as a resident. Rodriguez falls in that last category.

Lujan Grisham’s approval ratings tepid, as many still have no opinion

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s approval rating is barely above water according to a new poll, as her disapproval rating jumped since the poll’s last release. The Morning Consult poll found 44 percent of New Mexico voters approved of Lujan Grisham’s job performance while 43 percent disapproved. This gave Lujan Grisham the sixth-highest disapproval rating among all governors. It also found that 13 percent of registered voters had no opinion of her job performance. Participants were surveyed from the beginning of April through June and is part of the pollster’s quarterly review approval ratings of all 50 governors and 100 U.S. Senators.

Cannabis working group chair vows to be inclusive, transparent

In its inaugural meeting, a group tasked by New Mexico’s governor to come up with ideas to safely and efficiently legalize recreational use cannabis in the state discussed the process for which it will follow in the next several months. 

The Working Group on Cannabis Legalization for New Mexico consists of about 20 people with varying backgrounds, including medical cannabis producers, medical cannabis patients and state departments. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham picked the members of the group. 

Lujan Grisham’s senior policy advisor Dominic Gabello told members he is confident the group will be able to address the many concerns related to legalizing cannabis in New Mexico. 

“We’ve put this together and I think we’ve got a good plan moving forward to discuss this and really figure out, how do we find the right path forward for New Mexico,” Gabello said. Some medical cannabis patients and producers previously raised their concerns about adequate patient representation in the group. Before Wednesday’s meeting, there was no patients in the group, but patient advocate Heath Grider was ultimately added. “I believe that everyone is doing their best to include us,” Grider said just after Wednesday’s meeting. 

But, he said, the group can still use more voices, particularly from patients and businesses who might be impacted by legalization. 

The group’s chair, Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, told NM Political Report there will be more opportunities in the next eight planned meetings to include community stakeholders from across the state, including Native American tribal members and leaders and residents in rural areas. 

“All those meetings are public and they can add comments ahead of time online,” Davis said. 

Davis also said the group’s website will allow members of the public to see what each member thinks about a specific issue related to legalization. 

“You’ll see who dissented and what the vote was,” Davis said. 

And even though the group’s website is not an official state site, Davis said the whole process will be transparent and encouraged members to be aware of that . 

“Assume everything you write down is public record,” Davis told the group before the meeting. 

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who co-sponsored a bill last legislative session to legalize cannabis and establish state-run dispensaries, is also part of the group.

Patients want a voice in group planning for cannabis legalization

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.