Last October, amid ongoing problems of supply shortage and lengthy patient renewals, DOH created five temporary positions within the Medical Cannabis Program to take care of the problems. At the time, Torres said the positions would soon become permanent.
But this morning all five of the staffers were let go. DOH spokesman Chris Minnick says permanent replacements will soon be interviewed and that the Department doesn't expect the changes to "cause any delays in new applications or renewals."
But to others, DOH's statement is a far cry from reality.
"This will be a setback." Chris Hsu, vice president of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients' Alliance, tells SFR. "The Medical Cannabis Program is [now] literally unstaffed."
Beyond Coordinator Andrea Sundberg and Interim Program Manager William "Butch" Catanach, the five temps made the rest of the MCP's staff.
Advocates say the work they did—which included processing applications for new patients—kept the program running. Since the staffers came on, the MCP added an average of 200 new patients each month.
"I think the program is moving forward," TJ Scott, a NMMCPA board member, told SFR last month. "They now know us by name—a big difference from last year."
DOH wouldn't give the names of the staffers or the reason for letting them go, citing personnel rules.
MCP patient and Medical Marijuana Radio host Larry Love says he personally knows two of the five and adds that DOH's move is "another step in the governor and Dr. Torres trying to stop the program."
"How long will it take to train new people?" Love asks.
During her 2010 campaign, Gov. Susana Martinez expressed personal opposition to medical marijuana. Since becoming governor, though, she's maintained that her administration isn't focused on the program (SFR put a call in to the Governor's Office and will update when/if we hear back).
Still, today's developments mark yet another shakeup in the program since the Martinez stepped into office. Last winter, all of three of the MCP's then-permanent staffers resigned within a six-week period. In May, DOH Deputy Secretary Walle Vette, who was working closely with the MCP, left for personal reasons.
For the past three years, allegations of dysfunction, nepotism and retaliation have been a mainstay within DOH.
Hsu says the news of the staffers' removal is shocking, noting that NMMCPA members met with Sundberg recently and didn't get the impression that any shakeups would be happening.
"To hear them let go on such short notice is disconcerting," Hsu says. "Rest assured we will be looking into this."