When New Mexico passed a law two years ago allowing the use of medical marijuana, no one—potential patients, doctors, bureaucrats, potheads—had any idea what the program would look like or when the herb would start flowering.
In California, dispensaries like Mr Nice Guy (a real place in San Francisco) distribute legal pot for ailments as common as menstrual cramps. The Sunshine State's easy access to medical marijuana has captured the imagination of New Mexico pot smokers—medical and otherwise. But for New Mexico Department of Health officials, a booming, commercial pot industry is the last thing they want to see develop.
"The difference between California and New Mexico is that California's law is one page and New Mexico's is 12 pages," DOH Infectious Disease Bureau Medical Director Dr. Steve Jenison, who oversees the Medical Cannabis Program, says.
In California, local jurisdictions such as counties formulate regulations and policies for medical marijuana distribution. In New Mexico, the DOH is solely in control of crafting a program.
Now, after two years of planning, the DOH has chosen to limit marijuana growing to patients and nonprofits that are capable of both production and distribution. With almost 300 patients and one nonprofit registered for the program, advocates behind the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act may soon see their decade-long dream come to fruition.
"I always tell them: 'We wanted to do it right, instead of right now,'" Medical Cannabis Program Coordinator Melissa Milam says.
The model the DOH is exploring is so far untested and it is unclear whether nonprofit producers will be able to produce enough to serve an unpredictable statewide demand. (On April 13, the program's Medical Advisory Board recommended adding eight more medical conditions to the 13 already approved for medical marijuana treatment. If DOH Secretary Alfredo Vigil approves the recommendations, this will no doubt add to the number of applicants to the program.)
In the meantime, the legal gray lines remain: Patients can legally obtain pot from dealers illegally selling it.
As the program finally becomes a reality, the Great New Mexico Marijuana Experiment reignites a debate about pot use and drug culture that has raged for decades.
"Having that conversation out there in the open, having the issue discussed on FOX, on CNN, is shedding a light on the destruction of the Drug War in the United States," Julie Roberts, policy coordinator with Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, which lobbied for the legislation, says. "It really crosses class lines, racial lines, gender lines and is impacting a huge proportion of Americans. I think that having these dialogues will hopefully change public perceptions in the months and years to come."
Robbie W was stabbed when he was in the sixth grade. He survived.
When he was 16, he was launched 42 feet from the bed of a truck in a car wreck. He landed on his head and broke his wrist, but survived.
When he was 18, he was carjacked at gunpoint, then dragged behind a building where he was sure he was going to be executed. A random passerby scared the perpetrator away.
Again, Robbie survived—but each subsequent trauma damaged him.
"I was doing good until 1996," Robbie says. "Then my insurance stopped supporting my prescription medicine. They changed it to something else, which caused me to have a breakdown. I've been struggling ever since."
Robbie lives in Austin but began making preparations to move to New Mexico when he learned the medical marijuana program's advisory board would be approving post-traumatic stress disorder as an eligible "debilitating" condition.
"I checked out California and I actually qualify for five or six conditions there, but the cost of living is just outrageous," he says. "New Mexico cuts my expenses down by a third compared to Austin."
Now, Robbie is traveling back and forth between Austin and northern New Mexico in order to maneuver the bureaucratic system set up by the health department.
There are, of course, restrictions and requirements in that system. Patients with marijuana growing licences are limited to four plants, which must be grown out of public view. Nonprofits may keep up to 95 plants, but the organization must be able to both grow and distribute to clients.
The department has sole authority to determine how many nonprofit producer licenses will be issued and to whom. According to Milam, the department has received seven applications to date and approved one grower. The organization claims it can serve 85 patients, more than double the department's estimation for a 95-plant facility.
(Click here to read excerpts from application forms, including descriptions of the facilities' "menus." In each case, the DOH has redacted all information that could identify the producer because of confidentiality policies).
As producers begin production, this confidentiality policy brings up questions of oversight. The DOH was granted powers that would normally be distributed among several government agencies: the Department of Agriculture and the Environment Department have no authority to inspect the horticulture techniques or land and water usage; the Regulation and Licensing Department will not review licenses. If the DOH decides to cap prices, it would be taking an action normally under the purview of the Public Regulation Commission.
In essence, all regulation and oversight powers belong to Jenison and Milam, who have no authority to disclose the identities of producers, even if one is found to be in violation of the act. However, in an effort to improve transparency, the DOH passed regulations requiring producers to open their sales books to clients.
The opacity doesn't bother Robbie. He points out that each nonprofit producer must have at least three patients on its board of directors and, since those patients' names are also confidential, the producers have begun advertising on Craigslist.
Craigslist has been an important tool for Robbie. Through the site, he found a landlord who will allow him to grow pot on her property, provided he has the appropriate license. That's his task of the moment; he's gathering his medical records from Austin to transfer to a doctor in Taos who's willing to consider recommending him for the program.
Robbie isn't interested in the dispensaries: He wants to live peacefully in the country and grow his own.
"That's why I'm moving to New Mexico," he says. "That would be much more economical than trying to purchase pot. As of right now, I'm on a very fixed budget."
Sammy B is a man with a medical condition. Approximately three months ago, he hurt his back on one of those Ab Lounge contraptions from the infomercials. Hell yeah, the marijuana helps with the pain.
"I'm a stay-at-home dad and I can't be on painkillers and watch my kids," Sammy says. "With marijuana I can monitor myself."
Sammy's two boys play outside while his pot dealer, Kyle B, wrestles with a video game controller on the couch. Kyle is trying to heal his character, which has just been bitten by one of Resident Evil 5's African zombies.
A High Times bud-of-the-month calendar hangs on the wall of the master bedroom, right next to the door of what might once have been a laundry room. Sammy's neurologist appointment is just a few lines above a harvesting reminder. He opens the pantry door: Several four-week-old marijuana plants fan out under a UV light.
"Any more than that would be greedy," Sammy says.
He's not sure what strain the original seeds were, but he's hoping the plants will grow into "Lemon Trainwreck" and "Sour Diesel," two particularly tasty and potent strains.
Under New Mexico's rules, home producers are allowed to have up to four plants and 12 seedlings. The plants in Sammy's pantry are still small enough to qualify as seedlings, but the other batch of barely sprouted plants in a secret spot down the hall would bring him into violation.
Not that his back condition qualifies him for a patient card in the first place. This is straight-up illegal; Sammy's marijuana use goes well past recreational into habitual.
"See, for me, pot is a lifestyle," he says, lifting his shirt to reveal a gleaming, postcard-sized marijuana leaf belt buckle.
Stoner he may be, but Sammy has a sober dream, one that seems more and more viable each year. He attends the advisory board meetings, he's reviewed all the application forms. He regularly gets his mother-in-law high and she suffers from hepatitis C-related conditions that would be covered under the regulations. Once approved, he can apply to be her caregiver, which means he can legally grow pot—in her home.
Sammy says he plans to attend a 13-week program at Oaksterdam University in California, where he can learn everything he needs to know to be a legitimate medical marijuana grower.
"I'd totally hire a babysitter if I could get a job in a legal grow house," Sammy says. "Wouldn't you, Kyle?"
"Yeah," Kyle mumbles.
Under the state regulations, anyone convicted of distributing or trafficking drugs is permanently banned from working for a medical marijuana producer. Two years ago, Kyle was arrested when cops found him with two pipes, a scale and two bags of weed. He should have been busted for distribution, but was only charged with possession.
He will have to wait at least three years before he's eligible for a job with a licensed producer. That's assuming he's not caught dealing first.
With medical marijuana, there's always the original sin. The law protects registered medical marijuana patients and their caregivers from prosecution but, without a functional dispensary, the 269 patients who aren't licensed growers are still dependent on dealers. These dealers are not protected. Even the growers have to get their seeds from somewhere and the law forbids interstate transportation of marijuana.
It's a gray line the DOH doesn't want to even touch. Even Milam is currently the subject of an internal investigation for facilitating and endorsing patient community gatherings where they can exchange tips, techniques, plants and pot.
If the medical marijuana program coordinator isn't safe, then Kyle definitely needs to watch his back.
Kyle lounges back in a top-tier seat on the Rail Runner, hugging a black diaper bag in his arms. Inside is a few hundred dollars worth of Hindu Kush, a highly valued strain of cannabis indica. Kyle has a morning rendezvous with a cancer patient who reportedly has been stuck with low-grade brick weed from Mexico.
Kyle doesn't deal for the money. He does it to keep himself in supply. It's the first Saturday train from Santa Fe—8:10 am—and he's already smoked two bowls.
"They should have someone walking around with a little tray of bud," Kyle fantasizes aloud. "You could have a little pin hole in the windows that would hold the smoke in but just let in enough air for ventilation."
The man he's meeting will be Kyle's second patient/customer. (Sammy doesn't count.) The first was his neighbor, Dorothy, whose face and neck were cut to shreds in an unsuccessful attempt to isolate her throat cancer. The pot helped with the pain and her appetite.
"I'd go over and smoke her out," Kyle says. "She was really cool. She didn't give a shit either. She had a little purple bong. I always wanted to get her a water pipe, a little bubbler, but I never had any money to do it."
At the time, Kyle worked as a traveling salesman, demonstrating appliances in homes across the state. One night his wife called: There were ambulances at Dorothy's house. She was dead.
"I was, like, cleaning this lady's couch with a fucking [vacuum], trying to sell it to her and I just had to stop," Kyle says. "I went outside and told somebody else to take over: 'I don't give a fuck right now.' I hung out in the van, smoked a bowl and just broke down."
"Yeah," he says hoarsely, as if he's just taken a hit. "It was rough."
"I had to have a third of my colon removed, which was the ascending part of my colon," 1st Judicial District Attorney Angela "Spence" Pacheco says. "Now I have two-thirds left, which means, basically, I have a semicolon."
Pacheco's battle began eight years ago this April when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. There was surgery to remove the cancer, six months of chemotherapy to finish it off and synthetic THC to help her keep her food down.
"They were like little green BBs and I had like 10 of them," Pacheco says. "I was amazed when it was prescribed to me."
She bought the dronabinol from Walgreens, went home and took it as prescribed. The experience was miserable.
"I started hallucinating," she says. "I became very frightened. I remember I felt like the wall was coming in on me and I couldn't breathe."
But it worked.
"It clearly helped my nausea," she says. "I had never been frightened like that before, but I had release."
Asked whether she would have smoked pot had it been legally available, Pacheco considers her answer carefully.
"No," she says. "I've prosecuted too many marijuana cases. It's still basically illegal and especially now, in my position, it would be almost hypocritical."
Pacheco points out that having a marijuana card comes with its limitations: no driving high, no smoking on the bus, at work, school or any other public place. If you're caught with pot and tell a cop you're a medical marijuana patient when you're not, you've committed a petty misdemeanor.
Marijuana possession is a relatively low-level offense in New Mexico; the first offense carries a maximum $100 fine and up to 15 days in jail. However, a judge can order a suspect to complete probation in exchange for full dismissal of the charge.
A scary piece of trivia from the DA: If you're smoking a joint, that's a petty misdemeanor. If you pass it to a friend, that's felony distribution.
But low-level marijuana cases aren't high on Pacheco's agenda.
"What we look to prosecute are cases where it's intended to be criminal, for-profit, where there are addiction issues that lead to [property and violent] crimes," Pacheco says. "That's very different from someone with a debilitating illness."
Sheriff Greg Solano says his office "encourages" deputies not to arrest on minor possession charges and instead issue warnings or citations summoning the individual to court. Santa Fe Police Department Deputy Chief Aric Wheeler says the department follows a similar policy for low-level cases unless there are "exigent circumstances."
According to Milam, the DOH does not provide local law enforcement with information regarding the location of licensed grow houses and dispensaries. In the event one is busted, law enforcement agencies can call the Health Department to receive confirmation the grower is part of the program.
Solano says he is one of the state's few sheriffs to support the program.
"We do not arrest, cite or prosecute medical marijuana cases, and we even may assist those who are confused with the law on how to be compliant," Solano says.
Wheeler says SFPD hasn't dealt with any medical marijuana-related incidents at this point and doesn't have a policy in place aside from what is laid out in the state statute.
During the 2009 legislative session, the New Mexico Senate passed a memorial sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, "discouraging" the use of state funds to go after authorized marijuana users. The memorial also "urged" the state's congressional delegation to remove marijuana from Schedule 1, the top tier of federal narcotics regulation, and to support legislation recognizing New Mexico's medical marijuana law.
Although the Department of Justice under the Bush administration regularly raided medical marijuana operations in California, President Barack Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, said in a February press release he does not intend to raid facilities formed legally under state law.
The client, Michael W, a 6-foot-2-inch veteran with a white pony tail, arrives and reads Kyle's character so quickly and accurately Kyle is shocked.
"You're a lot more conservative than most Santa Feans, aren't you?" Michael asks before the dealer says a word.
Michael explains he's a born-again Christian and a Republican, who was dead-set against marijuana until approximately eight months ago.
"I was diametrically opposed to the legalization of pot," Michael says. "To me, [medical marijuana] was a bullshit excuse for stoners to get stoned."
As they stop in Nick's Crossroads Café, a downtown diner, Kyle says he's brought some "goodies" for Michael to sample later.
"Goodie goodies?" Michael asks. "Like cookies?"
Kyle opens the diaper bag to reveal a jam jar of pot. Michael reaches in, grabs it, holds it to the light, opens it, smells it. A customer at the next table makes a face. Kyle shifts nervously.
"Don't worry," Michael says. "I'll eat the $100 citation."
Cancer doesn't just run in Michael's family—it's been chasing them down one by one. Breast cancer killed his mother. Lymphoma killed his father. A metastasizing cancer killed his grandmother. Now skin cancer is trying to drag him into the dirt.
Approximately eight months ago, Michael happened across phoenixtears.ca, a website set up by Canadian medical marijuana activist Rick Simpson. For three years, Simpson has provided cancer patients with hemp oil, which he says can cure certain forms of cancer. Michael contacted Simpson, who set him up with an Albuquerque producer. Within weeks, Michael says, his skin began to clear up.
Michael is loud, overbearing and, admittedly, a bit manic. His friends say he has problems with anger. Michael knows he's angry, but he says it's justified.
"I just lost it one night," he says. "I broke down thinking, 'how dare my government lie and bury this stuff?' My grandmother, my dad would be alive. I've been disfigured, cut up and I've still got cancer."
Michael plans to apply for New Mexico's medical marijuana program, but it will be a battle because his health care is covered by the US Veterans Administration.
"The VA doctors, I don't think they personally would have a whole lot of problems [with medical marijuana], but they're within the confines of the federal system."
Instead, he'll need to transfer his medical records to a private doctor, who he'll pay out of pocket to help him compile what may be an especially lengthy application.
Marijuana is Michael's miracle cure, his magic tonic. In addition to the cancer, he suffers from leg injuries left over from his career as a pararescuer with the Navy. His gums are rotten due to an accident with a can of peaches when he was working at the South Pole. He's got a silver-dollar sized scar on his chest where a tumor used to be and sometimes the tissue stings mercilessly. The pot eases the pain and helped pull him out of depression, another thing he didn't believe in until a few months ago.
Currently, only the cancer is covered by New Mexico's law, but his extreme and unusual set of conditions may make a strong argument for "chronic pain," were that condition to be approved for medical marijuana use.
All the talk of pain and pot has Kyle fiending for his pipe. Michael drives them to his home, where Kyle sinks into a couch and loads a bowl. Kyle asks what's with all the light green glass, the cups and saucers and sweetmeat plates that fill the cabinets lining the walls of Michael's living room.
Michael explains he's a collector of "Vaseline glass," named for its coloring, not its content. Actually, the glass is died with uranium oxide. A Geiger counter would go nuts in here, Michael says, but it's perfectly harmless and he swears it has nothing to do with his cancer.
Michael flips a switch and suddenly dozens of hidden black lights turn on. The room glows nuclear green.
"Dude!" Kyle bursts out. "You were a stoner before you even knew you were a stoner!"
The April 13 meeting of the medical marijuana program's advisory board doesn't begin well, mostly because no one is sure whether it will begin at all. Ten minutes after it's supposed to start, only two of the board's eight members have showed.
"Just an observation," Richard Rubin, a physician's assistant from Albuquerque, calls out from the public gallery at the Harold Runnels Auditorium. "It seems like there's a real lack of interest and that seems like a problem in itself. Again, just an observation."
The Medical Advisory Board meets twice a year to consider new "debilitating" conditions to add to the list of conditions treatable with marijuana. Sammy is in the audience waiting for a decision on bipolar disorder, held over from the January meeting. At that meeting, the board approved PTSD, the first mental health disorder applicable under the law.
Eventually, two more members turn up, and there's enough for a quorum. Patients applying for inclusion are allowed to address the board privately, so every few minutes the board kicks the audience out of the room. In the hall, Rubin argues for legalization, while a businessman named Anthony Sedillo tries to talk a nurse practitioner into joining his nonprofit's board as the medical professional required by the DOH rules.
Back inside, a Parkinson's disease patient decides to publicly address the board about his condition. He stands at the microphone and confesses that he's been self-medicating himself with marijuana for decades. Usually it makes his hand stop shaking, but right now it's flailing hard, he says, because he's nervous.
"You should go out and have a jay," someone in the audience says. Everyone smiles.
The board members unanimously approve the application. The audience applauds, as they do every time the board approves a new condition.
The board refuses to consider "chronic pain" as a condition without including the word "severe" because it's too vague. Dr. Bill Johnson is the board's dissenting voice.
"Chronic pain is one of the reasons patients chronically use the chronic," he says.
When bipolar disorder and dysthymia, a form of chronic depression, come up for discussion, Johnson, the board's only psychiatrist, gives a 10-minute presentation in support of inclusion. Dysthymia is voted down 3-to-1. Bipolar ends with a tie.
"This is bullshit," Sammy whispers. "They can't end it on a tie vote. The people who are here waiting for it to be legalized for bipolar are stuck in fucking limbo."
Jenison reminds the 20 or so audience members that the board only makes recommendations. The ultimate power of approval rests with DOH Secretary Alfredo Vigil.
Under the law, pot is considered a medication of last resort, only legal when no other treatments will work and the suffering is bad enough. Hence lies the debate emerging over marijuana: Why is pot OK for Michael's cancer but not his depression? If it makes you feel better—physically, psychologically, whether you're sick or not—what's wrong with a toke?
Jenison says he voted against bipolar and dysthymia because there isn't enough unbiased literature available yet. Johnson says he voted for it because, since the law passed, he's been free to listen to patients talk about their marijuana usage with an open mind. He's convinced it's the best option for some patients.
"Is it really for recreational use or is there a beneficial effect? Is it just an intoxicant or is it a medicine?" Johnson tells SFR after the meeting. "That's a strong possibility that we are coming to appreciate based on the outcry of the public for this. They're the ones who go to the doctors and say, 'This is medicinal for me.'" SFR