The state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board does not favor most of the changes to New Mexico's cannabis program proposed this spring by the Department of Health.
The board made recommendations to reject most of the proposals Monday after hearing from dozens of patients, producers, medical experts and drug policy advocates about new fees, criminal background checks, doctor certifications and expensive medical tests.
Among those who testified was Jason Weeks, who says he uses pot every day to treat the agony of his chronic pain.
"It's the the only thing that works for me," he says, admitting that he purchases his marijuana from the black market to save $200 a month over what he'd pay for medication sold by 23 state-licensed producers.
R Greenleaf Organics Founder Willie Ford says Weeks' admission is important. It highlights that most of the rules proposed on May 9 are just a distraction from the real issue: chronic supply shortages.
Ford and others want the Department of Health and the advisory board to deal with harvest yields before considering other issues.
"Every single day I have to stand at the front counter and explain to some our patients why they can't get the amount of medication they need," says Ford. "It's heartbreaking to me. Patients' access should be number one. The end goal of all this is should be to get patients access to more medication."
Adequate statewide supply is also important to Jason Marks, a former Public Regulation Commissioner who represents 19 members of a group called Cannabis Producers of New Mexico. He believes the health department's proposed unit methodology is "complex and unworkable," and says he wants the panel to consider supply models being used in Arizona and Rhode Island that allow patients access up to 15 ounces every three months.
Rules aimed at preventing patients from selling "extra medicine" on the black market are misguided, he says, noting that with the price of cannabis at dispensaries, no patient would reasonably take that action.
Some point to the federal government's own marijuana program. It's been operated for decades from a farm in Mississippi. Patients in that program are instructed to smoke up to 10 one-gram joints a day. That's between five and seven pounds per federal patient a year—nowhere close to what's allowed in New Mexico.
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, who suffers back pain himself, told the panel they have the power to do what is in the best interest of patients.
"If you were to take a greater role, you could return this program to what it was intended to do for patients in New Mexico," says McSorley.
One of the panel's roles includes recommending medical conditions for the program, which is why the three members who attended Monday's meeting also sent a message to Health Secretary Retta Ward. They want to know why she still hasn't made a decision on their recommendation to include Alzheimer's disease and all age-related dementia more than 120 days ago.
William Johnson, Lauren Brown and Tim Lopez appeared to be surprised when Program Manager Ken Groggel told them he'd "respectfully decline to answer all their questions."
Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico State Director Emily Kaltenbach tells SFR she's disappointed with the lack of dialogue between the board and the program managers.
Undeterred by Groggel's unwillingness to interact with them, the board voted unanimously to recommend requiring the health secretary to make a decision on petitions within 90 days.
Perhaps sensing the need for additional dialogue, Drug Policy Alliance Policy Coordinator Jessica Gelay urged the board to approve a patient-producer task force to discuss the program with program managers every 90 days. It didn't take them long to adopt the idea.
Board members also voted to reject rule proposals that would impose a $50 annual registration fee on patients. Pot advocates say that a proposed increase in producer fees from $30,000 to $90,000 a year should cover the program costs.
Unanimously, the board also rejected rules that if adopted by the health department later would prohibit parents of children using medical marijuana from growing their own medication, limiting THC concentrate amounts and new requirements that would have required patients to submit their fingerprints and other biometric identifiers.
Close to 100 people applauded the board's recommendation that adequate supply for individuals be determined by a patient and their doctor, "not a bureaucrat."
Panelist even rejected proposed rules that would limit patients like Weeks' ability to buy from the street and allow one medical provider to reject a patient's program application.
Brown told patients the board will submit its final recommendations to the health department no later than two weeks.
It's not clear when program managers will impose final rules or schedule a new public hearing to consider any new rule proposals. Ward has said she won't consider additional producer licenses until the rule-making process has been completed.