Updated at 4:40 pm: Proposed new regulations on New Mexico's medical cannabis program include steep fee increases for both patients and producers, but insiders say they don't adequately address a supply shortage.
Late Friday afternoon, administrators recommended a 50 percent cut in the number of plants licensed patients can grow at home from four plants to two plants. If the proposals are adopted, patients will also have to ante up $50 for annual patient registry identification card renewals, maintain ongoing relationships with their primary doctors and in some cases, pay for repetitive medical tests.
Patients who still want to grow two mature plants will pay an additional $30 application fee.
But it's the state's 23 nonprofit producers who face the sharpest cost increases. In February, producers were notified that they would be allowed to grow more plants in an effort to reduce chronic shortages of the medication, but should expect "reasonable fee increases."
Now, officials are proposing hiking their license fees from $30,000 to $90,000, or $20,000 for every 50 mature female plants up to 150 plants, and $10,000 for every 100 seedlings, up to 300 seedlings.
And, just two days after SFR reported the department had no rules governing the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) in edible products, regulators now want to limit THC/CBD to 60 percent for edibles and other concentrated cannabis products.
The regulations also increase plant-testing requirements, propose new rules for courier services and outline new responsibilities for the state Medical Cannabis Program's advisory board.
"They've attacked every aspect of this program," says Erik Briones, who founded Minerva Canna Group. "Personally, I think they are trying to cripple this program."
He's not alone. State Sen. Cisco McSorley tells SFR he believes, "It's a concerted effort to shutdown the medical cannabis program."
New Mexico Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil sent SFR a statement saying the proposed regulations "are meant to strengthen the program by protecting the health and well-being of patients, assuring the integrity of the program and assuring the Department can continue to manage the program."
Vigil also notes state law requires patients to reapply for the program every year even if their medical conditions are permanent.
For now, Willie Ford, founder of R Greenleaf Organics in Albuquerque, supports the nonprofit fee increase to help the program become more self-sufficient. He tells SFR, however, that nothing in the new rules will help reduce the cost of the patient's medication. He wanted to see larger plant limits and claimed a larger supply of medication could have dropped the price to about $8 a gram.
Regulators in Santa Fe began their program review last fall after a patient survey revealed a chronic shortage of medication statewide.
In January, nonprofit producers were invited to share their ideas for improvement. A month later, Health Secretary Retta Ward announced plans to boost the total number of plants.
"I thought they were finally listening to us, but as time dragged on and nothing happened, I started seeing red flags and thinking they were going to screw us," says Briones. "This is what we got."
Revenue from the fee increases could be a windfall for the state. With nearly 11,000 patients, registry identification card fees alone would generate about over $550,000. And producers, who currently pay a total of $690,000 for production licenses would pay over $2 million. Ward has also said she'll consider licensing a dozen new producers, but that's not part of this rule-making process.
So far, the department has not explained where the new money would be spent, but officials could allocate some of the money to conduct more site inspections and program audits.
Producers may be more disappointed in another section of the proposed regulations. They had hoped they would be allowed to apply for additional program licenses as a way of creating more inventory, but new regulations wouldn't permit that kind of doubling up.
"These rules changes reflect an administration more interested in business and the restrictions of rights than one interested in helping sick people," says Ford.
Gov. Martinez, who was in Puerto Rico with civil leaders and members of New Mexico Amigos to promote the state, was also unavailable to comment on the proposed program changes.
But former Gov. Gary Johnson is speaking out. The new rules, he says, are "horrible."
A longtime drug legalization advocate, Johnson tells SFR that when the medical cannabis program was first proposed he thought it was a ruse, but over the years has discovered marijuana provides "huge" benefits for patients suffering from numerous medical ailments.
Now, Johnson says he's worried the proposed regulations, if adopted, will drive patients back to the black market.
"More people are going to end up in jail," says Johnson. "We're going to make criminals out of patients."
Like Sen. McSorley, Johnson believes, the proposals are really an attempt to kill the program.
"The writing is on the wall," he says, adding, "Politicians who stand in the way of this program will get bit."
He might be right. A Gallup Poll last year showed a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In New Mexico, poll numbers have fluctuated depending on the questions asked. In February 2013, the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico commissioned a poll from Research and Polling, Inc. that showed 57 of voters in the state favor reducing the penalty for adult possession of marijuana for personal use from a misdemeanor crime to a civil penalty with small fines and no jail time. Another 52 percent of the sampled voters support taxing and regulating marijuana.
Despite the outcries, Gov. Martinez, who is running for re-election, may be looking at the same poll results. Close to 40 percent of voters say the votes cast by lawmakers on marijuana legalization would not influence their own ballot votes this fall.
As required by law, the rules have to be posted at least 30 days before a public hearing. That's scheduled for 9 am, June 16 at the Department of Health in Santa Fe.
Read the proposed regulations online.