The Department of Health recently dismissed all five of its Medical Cannabis Program temporary workers—positions that, last fall, Health Secretary Catherine Torres promised to make permanent.
Last October, amid ongoing problems of supply shortage and lengthy patient renewals, DOH created five temporary positions within the Medical Cannabis Program to deal with the problems. At the time, Torres said the positions would soon become permanent.
But all five of the staffers were let go last week. 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."
Others, however, disagree with that assessment.
"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 comprised the MCP's entire staff. (A commenter on SFReporter.com, where this story first ran, said Catanach was also fired; however, Minnick tells SFR that he remains with the department.)
Advocates say the work the temps did—which included processing applications for new patients—kept the program running. Since their arrival, the MCP added an average of 200 new patients each month [news, Aug. 1: "Pot of Gold"].
"I think the program is moving forward," TJ Scott, a NMMCPA board member, recently told SFR [news, July 11: "Dry Market"]. "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 wonders.
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 (the governor's office didn't respond to SFR's request for comment before press time).
Still, today's developments mark yet another shakeup in the program since Martinez took office. Last winter, all of three of the MCP's then-permanent staffers resigned within a six-week period. In May, DOH Deputy Secretary Wally Vette, who was working closely with the MCP, left for personal reasons [news, May 23: "Unhealthy Department"].
For the past three years, allegations of dysfunction, nepotism and retaliation have plagued 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."