The state’s medical cannabis program is about to become a lot more transparent. Ten months after it rejected SFR’s request to review dozens of new grower license applications, the Department of Health says it will release information on the licensees for the first time.
According to a post on the department's website, Health Secretary Retta Ward has accepted the recommendation of a public hearing officer to amend the program's rules. Gov. Susana Martinez ordered the change after the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and this journalist sued the department for violating the NM Inspection of Public Records Act last July, but the wheels of justice moved slowly.
The rule and other recent program amendments are set to be effective on Monday, Feb. 29, after their required publication in The New Mexico Register.
Open government advocates and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas have argued that current confidentially rules exceed the department's statutory authority, claiming that program managers shouldn't have withheld the growers' identities from disclosure, since legislators did not specifically authorize the shield when they approved the program in 2007. Having information about who has been awarded the licenses and how well they are complying with program rules, they maintain, is essential to public oversight.
While the department says that most information about the producers and their financial backers will now be provided upon request, other documents, including tax returns and Social Security numbers (already protected under federal law), will be withheld, along with the home addresses of growers and nonprofit board members.
Information about 21,000 registered patients, who both use and grow cannabis to treat cancer, AIDS, chronic pain and other medical ailments, will remain confidential, however.
Program Manager Ken Groggel gave producers a heads-up about the change via email, writing that the department "intends to withhold only limited information" when responding to requests to inspect or copy such records.
That may not sit well with producers who fear disclosure and have expressed concerns about being targeted by criminals. During a public hearing on the rule change on Jan. 6, producers also argued the rule should not be applied retroactively, since they filed their applications with the idea the information would remain confidential. Some producers said they might seek a court injunction to prevent the rule from being applied retroactively. As of presstime, no such motion had been filed.
Nicole Morales, the president of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Alliance, tells SFR she understands some of the producers' security concerns but thinks transparency is important.
"As the industry evolves, the producers need to get used to program changes," says Morales, adding that her group is relieved patients' names still won't be revealed.
Ward also says she'll adopt several common-sense rules intended to make the program less onerous for patients, including a new provision that allows patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain or inflammatory arthritis to apply for the program after getting a single medical practitioner to sign off their registration documents. In the past, signatures were needed from multiple doctors.
But already there are signs that the department isn't ready to back its word. After the announcement on Monday, SFR filed a new request for the license applications. Late Tuesday, the department's privacy officer sent us an email stating they believe the request is "broad and burdensome" and the regulators will need until April 6 to comply.
Susan Boe, the executive director for NMFOG, says, "I hope the public health department can position itself to respond more quickly to these requests, which it can anticipate will increase in light of this decision."