A state senator wants Medical Cannabis Program managers to take emergency action in light of a New Mexico Department of Health survey that confirms a critical shortage of marijuana for patients statewide.
"You have some very sick people who are begging the department to provide them with the medicine they need," Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, tells SFR.
In an effort curb the supply problem, McSorely plans to meet with Health Secretary Retta Ward and her staff to encourage them to use their regulatory authority to issue new licenses to non-profit groups that have applied to grow and distribute cannabis under the program. He'll also ask them to consider boosting the number of plants that 23 current growers may legally grow.
During Gov. Susana Martinez's first three years in office, the number of patients licensed to use cannabis has more than tripled (from 3,211 in Jan. 2011 to 10,289 patients by the end of October 2013), but market capacity has been capped at nearly the same level. During the same time period, the department hasn't authorized any new producers and current growers have only been authorized to increase the number of mature plants they're allowed to grow at any one time from 95 to 150.
Limited product supply has also kept the average price for an ounce of cannabis sky high.
Nearly 700 patients who answered a DOH survey this summer say they need an average of about 18.7 ounces of medical marijuana each year—an annual demand of more than 11,000 pounds. Producers report growing only about 20 percent of that amount.
While more than two-thirds of patients were able to obtain medication within a week, others who responded to the survey complained about having to wait two to four weeks for their product. Another 29 percent say they grow at least some of their own medication. Nearly half of the nonprofit producers who responded to the survey reported that they were forced to ration their harvest or turn away patients.
For some patients, steep pricing for medical-grade product has driven them to the street for their marijuana. On the black market, patients can often purchase an ounce of low-quality cannabis for $60, while medical-grade cannabis costs at least $265 an ounce. One producer reported charging $800 an ounce.
Chronic shortages and pricing concerns, McSorley says, are problematic for everyone involved with the program.
"We could be in violation of state statute," McSorley says, citing the 2007 Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act that requires medication be provided to all licensed patients. "There is a huge discrepancy between the need and what's being produced."
The insufficient supply of marijuana isn't a surprise to the executive director for R Greenleaf Organics, a non-profit producer with 17 employees operating in Albuquerque. Willie Ford says he's known about the shortage for a few years.
"I've been turning away more people than I serve on a regular basis," he says.
Ford isn't shy at assigning blame for the deficit to restrictive regulations and other nonprofit producers, whom he says aren't taking their production responsibilities seriously.
But mostly, Ford is upset with the Department of Health's hesitancy to meet the legislative mandate. Plant limits, he says, have left top producers' hands tied.
"There are a lot of limitations in this system that don't make any sense to me," says Ford. "If even one person who is guaranteed the right to use this medicine—by the legislature and people of New Mexico—is denied medication, then this program is a failure."
The shortages nearly bring Ford to tears.
"I deal with the people who stand in front of me at the counter and are heartbroken when they're unable to exercise the rights they have," Ford tells SFR. "They know they have the right. I know they have the right and yet we are crippled to make it happen by this administration."
ureaucracy, he says, has cost dying people a better quality of life.
"It's something many of them won't ever be able to recapture," he says.
Ford would like the Department of Health to consider adopting rules similar to ones adopted by Vermont—where he also runs a medical cannabis operation.
In the Green Mountain state, producers, Ford says, are allowed to have two flowering plants and seven vegetative plants for each registered patient. If that were the case in New Mexico there would be almost 21,000 flowering plants at any given time instead of the fewer than 3,500 permitted today.
"It would," Ford says, "give us the freedom we need to serve the patients that we have."
It would also have a dramatic impact on the price patients pay for medical cannabis. Ford says if restrictions were lifted, he'd be able to sell medication at half the current price within six months.
"When patients blame the producers for the price point they don't realize that we've hit a ceiling," says Ford, adding he's already considering a 10 to 15 percent price reduction. "Until we have the free market to deal with we really can't exercise that muscle."
While McSorely plans to meet with program managers in Santa Fe to discuss increasing plant limitations, that alone, he says, "is still not going to get us anywhere the amount of medication we need."
He thinks it's time for department to issue production licenses to new nonprofit growers to curb the shortfall. But, McSorley's expeditious call for additional licenses isn't the best solution according to Ford.
He and other top producers, who grow close to 80 percent of the medication available to New Mexico's patients, have been lobbying for new regulations to authorize them to increase the number of plants they can grow.
Ford says it doesn't take a lot of analysis to determine which producers are getting it right and which ones are still struggling. He'd like to see producers be rewarded for how well they take care of their patients, but says the administration hasn't given the nonprofit operators a seat at the planning table.
"I think that there are national aspirations for some of our local politicians that may be challenged by a successful cannabis program," Ford says. "They can't stop processing patient licenses because they'd be breaking the rules and be facing a lot of lawsuits. But, for me, limiting the number of plants seems like a very clever way to put on the brakes on the program, at the same time appearing to be concerned."
Growers, Ford believes, lack political astuteness and haven't been able to influence regulations or rule-making. The legislature, he says, has allowed agencies to institute restrictive policies that block residents' rights and access to medication.
While he's been critical of the program in the past, McSorley commends the department for contracting for the survey. He disagrees with Ford and says he believes state employees and the governor are acting in good faith.
"If all the department wanted to do was be obstructionists then I don't believe they would have allowed this survey," says McSorely. "It bares all. It's conclusive proof we have shortages."
Ken Groggle, who manages the state's program for NMDOH agrees. He says he's still analyzing survey responses, and isn't ready to announce what steps the department will take to manage the shortfalls or even when they'll have a plan.
"It does appear that we have to look at production and the availability of medicine for qualified patients," says Groggle, adding he's encouraged that 98 percent of the survey respondents reported receiving benefit from the medical cannabis program.