Tax expert says there could be significant revenues in cannabis legalization, some lawmakers still skeptical

Comments and questions raised on Tuesday during an interim legislative tax policy committee point towards lengthy debates on recreational cannabis legalization in the upcoming legislative session in January. 

Richard Anklam, the president and executive director of the New Mexico Tax Research Institute, told lawmakers that states that were early in legalizing recreational-use cannabis like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California have seen significant tax revenue increases in the past several years. Anklam, using a study from the Tax Foundation, a national think tank, said New Mexico could see roughly $70 million in excise taxes, before factoring in gross receipts taxes, if the state legalizes cannabis for recreational use. 

While not as common, Anklam said some states who have recently legalized recreational-use cannabis have developed tax models based on potency instead of by volume of what is sold. He said, the potential increase in tax revenue may not become the state’s saving grace, but that it would make a significant impact. 

“What’s the marijuana market worth? It’s worth a lot,” Anklam said. “Most states can’t fund highly significant portions of their government with it, but every little bit helps.”

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Ultra Health, a New Mexico medical cannabis production company, told lawmakers that despite the large amounts of possible tax money going to the state, current restrictions on cannabis production would not be conducive to a cannabis boom. 

Rodriguez has long been a vocal critic of the state’s Department of Health’s restrictions on how many plants producers can grow.

Some raise concerns about out-of-state, reciprocal patients in the time of COVID-19

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic the New Mexico Department of Health approved rules that put into practice a state law allowing medical cannabis patients from other states to buy, possess and use medical cannabis in New Mexico. 

The law was passed in 2019 as part of a massive statutory change for medical cannabis. That law also included a separate provision that many have argued would have allowed non-residents of New Mexico to become a New Mexico medical cannabis patient. 

But in 2020 lawmakers, backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the DOH, passed a law that made sure that only those who were medical cannabis patients in other states already could qualify for New Mexico’s program. 

They argued that allowing people from nearby states without a medical cannabis program to enroll in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program could invite unwanted federal scrutiny. Through legislative debate and public testimony, legislators and public health officials argued that the reciprocity provision in the 2019 law would be adequate enough to provide medicine to non-resident, medical cannabis patients spending time in New Mexico and would provide enough legitimacy to keep the federal government from intervening. 

But even now that the law reverted to only allow New Mexico residents and those already enrolled in a medical cannabis program to buy, possess and use it in the state, there seems to be a loophole of sorts that may allow exactly what the governor and state officials warned against. In 2019, the New Mexico Legislature approved a massive overhaul to the state’s medical cannabis law. The changes included protection from being fired from a job or losing parental custody just for being a medical cannabis patient.

Another medical cannabis company joins in legal action against the state

A second medical cannabis company has filed a petition asking a state district judge to invalidate rules recently enacted by the New Mexico Department of Health. 

Pecos Valley Production, a medical cannabis company with dispensaries in the southern part of the state, filed a petition Monday in state district court calling for an annulment of regulatory rules that lawyers for the company called “arbitrary and capricious.”

The petition from Pecos Valley argues similar points as one filed last week, on behalf of cannabis producer and manufacturer Ultra Health. Both petitions are filed under the same case. Lawyers for Ultra Health, one of which is Brian Egolf, who also serves as the state’s Speaker of the House, argued that the Medical Cannabis Program and the DOH failed to show reasoning for new rules. Ultra Health’s lawyers also accused the state of copying regulations from other states that have a medical cannabis program like Oregon and Colorado. 

The petition from Pecos Valley Production also accused the state of adopting rules from other states instead of properly consulting with medical cannabis producers in New Mexico. “These industry participants are well versed in the day-to-day operations of the New Mexico medical cannabis industry and therefore are more likely to provide relevant New Mexico specific evidence than the standards cut and pasted from other states,” the second petition reads.

NM cannabis producer challenges new DOH rules

A high-profile medical cannabis producer filed a petition in a state district court last week, asking a judge to invalidate rules recently put in place by the New Mexico Department of Health. 

In the petition, lawyers for cannabis producer Ultra Health argued that many of the recently adopted rules regarding plant and product testing, product labels and facility safety standards are “arbitrary and capricious.”

Last year, the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, which is part of the DOH, started the rule change process with a series of public meetings, which carried over to early this year. The rules, which range from pesticide and chemical testing to reciprocity for already approved cannabis patients from other states, went into effect earlier this month. But Ultra Health’s petition focuses on the new standards for producers, some of which the petition says would increase the financial burdens for patients. 

“Producers, who already pay well over $100,000 per year for their license and are precluded by federal law from taking any income tax deductions, will have to pay for the increased testing burden and will pass along the costs to patients,” the petition reads. 

A DOH spokesman wouldn’t say if or when the department would respond to the request to annul the new rules. 

“The Department of Health does not comment on pending litigation,” DOH spokesman David Morgan said. 

Arguably a perennial thorn in the side of the department, Ultra Health and its CEO Duke Rodriguez have filed numerous legal actions against the state over issues like the legality of displaying a cannabis plant at the state fair and increasing the number of plants producers can grow. Brian Egolf, who also serves as the state’s speaker of the House, is one of two lawyers who filed the petition.  

Testing and labels 

The new rules from the DOH spell out specific standards for testing plants for fungus, pesticides and heavy metals. But in the petition, Ultra Health’s lawyers argued that the department failed to show evidence that the safe level of contaminants is based on studies or science.  

“While Petitioner Ultra Health agrees that some testing is necessary to protect the safety of cannabis patients, DOH’s rules do not draw the necessary connection between the arbitrarily chosen testing parameters and specific measurements of patient safety,” the petition states. 

The petition also asserts that the DOH simply copied regulations from other states like Colorado and Oregon, where both medical and recreational-use cannabis are legal.

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.

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.

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.

Cannabis producer says state is pricing out smaller producers, limiting access to medicine

Dueling press releases over medical cannabis fees show the continuing, contentious relationship between a medical cannabis producer and the New Mexico Department of Health. The producer, Ultra Health, has long argued, often in court, that state mandated plant limits for producers should be higher. 

In a press release issued last week, Ultra Health argued that even with the latest plant increase to 1,750, the state’s fee structure discourages producers from growing the maximum amount of plants. Making it harder for producers to grow the maximum amount of plants, Ultra Health argued, will impact patients.  

“Under the new fee schedule, it will be impossible for all producers to meet the 1,750 maximum and cultivate an adequate supply of medicine for patients,” the Ultra Health release read. 

The DOH recently changed fees for producers to a graduated structure. The cost per plant significantly increases for producers after 1,000. According to Ultra Health’s data, only 12 of the 34 licensed producers paid $180,000 for the maximum 1,750 plants.

Additional cannabis producer asks to intervene in lawsuit over plant count

A potential new party to a lawsuit filed against the New Mexico Department of Health could further complicate the issue of how much medical cannabis is enough for the state. 

Medical cannabis producer R. Greenleaf has asked a state judge to allow the company to intervene in a lawsuit filed by three other medical cannabis companies that argue the state’s mandated limit on cannabis plants should be raised to better meet demands. R. Greenleaf, through its lawyer, argued that the three producers calling for a higher plant limit are not representative of the rest of the medical cannabis industry. Earlier this year, R. Greenleaf submitted its own study to the DOH and argued that producers need less than 1,500 plants to adequately supply patients with cannabis. 

The lawsuit, filed by producers Ultra Health, Sacred Garden and G & G Genetics, argues that the most recent plant limit increase did not go far enough and that the DOH did not use reliable data to reach the current plant limit of 1,750. The lawsuit says the state did not account for things like additional qualifying conditions and a recent court ruling that allows non-residents of New Mexico to become medical cannabis patients. 

“The New Mexico Department of Health and Secretary [Kathyleen] Kunkel have promulgated an administrative rule that violates a valid, un-appealed order from the First Judicial District Court,” the initial lawsuit read. “The rule also contradicts the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act and defeats the purpose and fulfillment of that statute.”  

The DOH has not filed a response yet, but the request by R. Greenleaf to intervene implies a disagreement amongst producers about whether New Mexico has, or is headed towards a shortage of medical cannabis.

Amid back and forth court filings, DOH not issuing medical cannabis cards to non-residents

The issue of whether non-residents of New Mexico can enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is still not settled. A flurry of three motions were filed in three days in a civil case over whether non-New Mexico residents are eligible for state medical cannabis cards. The New Mexico Department of Health filed a motion last week asking a state judge to reconsider his decision to compel the state to issue medical cannabis cards to anyone with a qualifying condition, regardless of where they live. On the same day, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and DOH jointly filed a motion asking a judge to stay, or hold off on, his order for DOH to issue cards to non-residents. Then, on Monday, the three petitioners who originally argued they were due medical cannabis cards even though they live outside New Mexico filed a motion calling for the program’s director to be held in contempt of court. 

The court case started in July when two Texas residents and an Arizona resident who is the CEO and president of a New Mexico medical cannabis asked a judge to force the state to issue the three petitioners medical cards.