As coronavirus spreads, advocates say it shows why paid sick leave is needed

With the coronavirus continuing to spread, some say the crisis emphasizes the need for paid time off for health emergencies in New Mexico. So far, there are no known positive cases of the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, in New Mexico, according to state Department of Health spokesman David Morgan. Jodi McGinnis Porter, director of communications for the New Mexico Human Services Department, said that as of the end of Sunday, 57 people in New Mexico tested for the virus and all tests were negative. But the state health department said last week that the agency anticipates positive tests at some point. Every state surrounding New Mexico has had at least one test positive case and there are hundreds of confirmed cases nationwide. 

The financial toll of the growing spread of the coronavirus is still not clear, but the Dow Jones dropped 2,000 points Monday and the price of oil dropped to $30.24 a barrel according to MarketWatch.com.

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.

House committee approves ‘red-flag’ bill

Despite the freezing cold, Stefani Lord wore a T-shirt that read “Pro-Gun Women” as she waited in line to speak against passage of gun-control legislation known as a “red flag” bill. 

“Rural people feel differently from those who live in urban cities,” said Lord, who lives in a rural part of Bernalillo County. “We feel disenfranchised … like Santa Fe is not listening.” Opponents of Senate Bill 5, perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation in this year’s session, made what may have been their last stand Tuesday during a House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee hearing. Though the outcome was not unexpected — the Democratic-controlled committee moved it to the House floor by a 3-2 vote along party lines — the frustration felt by the bill’s detractors remained as palpable as it was last week, when it passed the Senate by a narrow 22-20 vote. 

If the House approves Senate Bill 5 — which is likely, since Democrats who favor the bill outnumber Republicans by a ratio of almost 2 to 1 — it will then go to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has been pushing for the bill over the past year. 

Many people came to the Capitol to speak about the bill, but their mood, and perhaps words, were more about lifestyle than mere votes.

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.

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.

Medical cannabis patient asks judge to allow cannabis on house arrest

An Albuquerque-based attorney, who also serves in the state Senate, wants a judge to weigh-in on whether those on house arrest should have access to medical cannabis. 

The attorney and state lawmaker Jacob Candelaria, on behalf of his client Joe Montaño, filed a writ of mandamus, or a request for a ruling, in state district court, asking a judge to order Bernalillo County to allow those in custody to use medical cannabis if they are part of the state’s program. 

In his court filing, Candelaria argued that Montaño has a right to “adequate and reasonable medical care” while in custody. Candelaria also argued that state law says, “Medical Cannabis shall be considered the equivalent of the use of any other medication under the direction of a physician and shall not be considered to constitute the use of an illicit substance,” and therefore his client should be allowed access to his medical cannabis. 

According to New Mexico’s Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, which was updated during last year’s legislative session, medical cannabis patients are protected—with some exceptions—from discrimination for using medical cannabis. When mentioning incarceration though, the law seems open to interpretation.    

“A person who is serving a period of probation or parole or who is in the custody or under the supervision of the state or a local government pending trial as part of a community supervision program shall not be penalized for conduct allowed under the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act.” NM Stat § 26-2B-10

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the Senate bill that added sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. He previously told NM Political Report that the custody provision was aimed at those in pretrial services or those on probation or parole, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office agreed. 

Now Candelaria, who is also a medical cannabis patient, is challenging that thinking with the financial help of one of New Mexico’s more prominent medical cannabis producers, which is led by one of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program’s most vocal critics.

Protections for cannabis patients don’t extend to those on house arrest

Next month, the New Mexico Legislature is expected to consider legalizing recreational use cannabis. But many medical cannabis patients and patient advocates believe the state should solve problems with the state’s Medical Cannabis Program first. 

Many in the medical cannabis community have publicly expressed concerns about producer plant limits, social inequalities within the program and testing standards. But beyond those issues is the legal question of whether or not those who are incarcerated should be allowed to use medical cannabis with a medical professional’s recommendation. 

This year, New Mexico passed a sweeping bill that added protections for patients from getting fired or losing custody of their children to the state just for being a medical cannabis card holder. The new law also allows those in pretrial custody and those on probation or parole to use medical cannabis. Prior to the law passing, it was often left up to judges or probation and parole officers to make that decision.

Contraception access a problem for those in need

Rural, communities of color and low-income New Mexicans in some areas of the state face greater barriers when deciding if, how and when to become parents. According to Power to Decide, a Washington D.C. based reproductive rights organization, 134,850 women between the ages of 13 and 44 live in a contraceptive desert in New Mexico.  The nonprofit defines a contraceptive desert as a place where women lack reasonable access in their counties to a health center that offers the full range of contraceptive methods. Rachel Fey, director of public policy for Power to Decide, told NM Political Report this is important because women usually change contraceptive methods during their reproductive years. “People have the response, ‘What’s the problem? Go buy condoms. It’s no big deal.’ But it doesn’t work for everyone.

NM leaves med. cannabis security specifics up to producers

On a Sunday afternoon over Labor Day weekend, a masked man, armed with a gun, burst through the doors of an Albuquerque medical cannabis dispensary. About two minutes later, he walked back out the door, with an estimated $5,000 worth of cannabis products. In that time, the man hopped over a glass display case and corralled employees and at least one patient into one spot while he emptied a large jar of cannabis—and seconds later cannabis concentrates from the display case—into a bag. After he left, the man got into a car waiting in the back and sped off. All of it was caught on security cameras.  

In body camera footage from the Albuquerque Police Department, one of the employees can be heard recounting what the man said. 

“He asked if we had families and he was like, ‘Then you understand why I have to do this,’” the employee said.