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