At the end of a year that ostensibly brought the most significant progress to date for New Mexico’s medical marijuana program, more than half of the 899 approved medical marijuana patients remain without adequate access to their medicine.
Pot made headlines left and right in 2009. California struggled with an oversaturated and under-regulated commercial pot industry. Attorney General Eric Holder discouraged federal prosecutors from interfering with states’ medical marijuana laws. And in New Mexico, officials toyed with the nuts and bolts of the state’s fledgling program.
In March, after two years of planning, the Department of Health limited medical marijuana production to patients growing their own plants (four mature plants, 12 seedlings) and nonprofits (95 plants per nonprofit). At the time, Santa Fe Institute for Natural Medicine, the only nonprofit approved for production and distribution, estimated it could serve 100 patients; there were already 300.
August brought bumps in the road for a program already perceived as sluggish. Melissa Milam, the Medical Cannabis Program’s coordinator, resigned and Santa Fe Institute for Natural Medicine ran out of product.
On Nov. 9, Secretary of Health Alfredo Vigil approved four additional nonprofits to dispense medical marijuana to the growing number of patients. Days later, activists debated the program’s progress at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque.
Currently, 15 conditions qualify for medical marijuana use. Three more conditions—cluster and migraine headaches, bipolar disorder and ankylosing spondylitis—were approved by the Medical Advisory Board on Dec. 11 at a public hearing; hepatitis C and blepharospasm were denied. The new conditions require approval by Vigil; he had not ruled by press time.
Overall views on the program vary depending on interpretation of 2007’s Lynn & Erin Compassionate Use Act, under which New Mexico joined 13 other states in legalizing medical marijuana. New Mexico is unique in that its law directs the DOH to develop a production and distribution system.
However, Drug Policy Alliance Policy Coordinator Julie Roberts believes “there’s nothing in the law that requires patients to get their medical marijuana from one of the licensed production and distribution facilities.” The 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque ruled otherwise in the case of Tumi Madappa, who was approved for the program in October and is on probation for a non-drug-related offense. His parole officer found THC in Madappa’s urine at a time when the lone approved nonprofit was out of product. On Nov. 13, the District Court ruled that Madappa could only get marijuana from a licensed dispensary and had to carry documentation of his prescription.
Madappa’s attorney, Kim Alderman, says the ruling shows general misunderstanding of the new law.
Once all five nonprofits are running, it’s estimated they will produce enough marijuana for approximately 500 people; currently 243 patients are approved to grow their own.
Justin Case, a medical marijuana card holder from Tesuque, says the combination of nonprofit shortages and insufficient dosages have forced him to buy on the black market.
Critics also note the DOH’s policy of only providing information on medical marijuana nonprofits to card carriers, and the general difficulty in finding a doctor willing to recommend the drug.
Paul Culkin, a medical marijuana patient from Rio Rancho who attributes his PTSD to nine years spent on an Army bomb squad, started the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Group (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org) in November to counter what he sees as a lack of communication and support for medical marijuana patients.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, patients who don’t know, doctors who don’t understand,” Culkin says. “Cannabis is medicine; it’s not a joke.” The newly formed group has been advertising on Craigslist and meetup.com, but Culkin laments that the DOH refuses to include the group’s contact on patient mailings.
“We can’t accommodate everyone’s request to pass on information to patients,” DOH spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer tells SFR. “People have told us they have successfully found forums to reach patients through the internet and advertising,” she says.
Len Goodman, owner of Santa Fe County’s NewMexiCann Natural Medicine, which expects its first crop in mid to late February, has made it his business to be public by creating a “patient advocacy and outreach” website and having a listed phone number.
“We’re trying to match people up with doctors, to the extent we can,” Goodman says.
As for the program’s future, New Mexico Health Department spokesman Chris Minnick says, “We’re just gonna need to constantly evaluate” it. Roberts says the DPA hopes the department will review the program’s regulations in the spring. The DPA, she says, “will monitor that and hopefully provide input.”