After unanimously approving petitions for two new qualifying medical conditions, the state's Medical Cannabis Advisory Board spent most of Wednesday morning in Santa Fe listening to patients with post-traumatic stress disorder express concerns about new interpretations of regulations they claim make it difficult for them to renew their program cards every year.
They want their licenses to be valid for up to four years instead of just 12 months.
War veterans, for instance, say the Veterans Administration has already determined that they are permanently disabled. PTSD, the vets claim, doesn't ever go away.
"I've learned to cope and stay away from triggers," says Tim Origer. He's suffered symptoms associated with the conditions for more than four decades. Marijuana, he says, saved his life.
But Department of Health General Counsel Chris Woodward told the crowd that state statutes limit the cards use to a year at a time.
Patients also told the advisory board members their cards are being rejected or delayed for months at a time. Multiple people shared stories about their renewal paperwork being returned with demands to repeat expensive medical tests every year and get second opinions from specialists that aren't always available to patients in rural communities and charge additional fees.
Nick Montoya, 30, who drove up to the meeting from his home in Rio Rancho, tells SFR a delay in his renewal last year led to him being arrested.
Montoya says an Albuquerque Police Officer busted him after finding three grams of pot in his car and discovering his patient card was out of date.
"He said that wouldn't work, and handcuffed me," says Montoya, who spent one night in jail.
"I sent in my renewal form 90 days before it expired, but they sent it back demanding more information. We sent it back to them two months early, but never heard back from them," says Montoya.
In the meantime, Montoya racked up $2,500 in legal fees.
"Program employees are rude and unknowledgeable about their own rules," he tells SFR. "When I called them to get information on the status of my card they treated me like a criminal."
Fortunately for Montoya, just before his trial, he received a new patient license and his lawyer was able to get possession charges dismissed.
Board member Dr. Eve Elting, who attended the meeting by telephone, suggested, "something is wrong" with the renewal process. Other members agreed. They passed two motions that will allow patients suffering from PTSD to be referred to the program by any licensed medical doctor or prescribing psychologist.
Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico Policy Coordinator Jessica Gelay persuaded the advisory board to not only adopt a petition to include Alzheimer's disease as a qualifying condition, but convinced them to expand it to include all such "neurodegenerative dementia."
More than 30,000 New Mexicans' lives are impacted by Alzheimer's, and that number is forecast to grow to over 41,000 people by 2025. Currently, there are only five drugs prescribed for Alzheimer's disease.
Gelay says cannabis delays the build up of plaque on patients' brains and stimulates their appetites.
As a primary caregiver, Larry Love has firsthand experience helping his mother who has cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer's. Cannabis, he says, reduces his mother's agitation.
The board also unanimously approved ulcerative colitis.
The board's finding are recommendations, however, until they get final approval from Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward, who did not attend the meeting.
Earlier this year, she approved adding Huntington's and Parkinson's diseases to the list of qualified conditions, but rejected traumatic brain Injury.
Currently there are 10,818 patients enrolled in New Mexico's program. More than 830 patient licenses are still pending.
Twenty one states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana programs. Washington and Colorado have legalized cannabis for recreational use. A dozen more states, including Florida, New York and Ohio are considering new programs. A few other states have rejected proposals allowing residents to treat medical conditions, including, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee.
Producers and patients still hope to hear from program managers about increasing the supply of marijuana after chronic shortages were confirmed by SFR and the Department of Health last year.
"This has been an ongoing issue," says Gelay. "The Department should already be moving forward. We don't know what the delay is."
Patients hope something happens.
"I can't afford to renew my license," one patient told the panel. "And I can't afford my medication."