Is censorship the newest woe for New Mexico’s medical marijuana program?
It sure looks like it to Robert Jones.
Jones, a cancer patient who lives in Las Vegas, has been a qualified medical marijuana patient in New Mexico since November 2007, just after the program began. He has yet to get his hands on any medical marijuana. And when he spoke of his frustrations to SFR for a story last August, his licensed producer, the Santa Fe Institute of Natural Medicine, terminated Jones’ membership.
Though Jones didn’t mention SFINM by name in the article, he complained to SFR about rumored high prices ($400 an ounce) and lack of delivery to Las Vegas.
Jones only learned SFINM had dropped him when he tried—and was unable—to log on to its website. He contacted the provider and, on Jan. 14, received this email:
“In giving this quote to the press you released information in violation of the agreement you signed where you agreed that you would keep information regarding your membership with SFINM confidential,” “Nancy B” at SFINM writes. “For this reason, we are unable to serve you.”
Jones says he never signed a confidentiality agreement, and that the automatic log-in for SFINM’s website, which includes a confidentiality clause, wasn’t always there.
“No matter what I said in the article, there was only one dealer at the time,” Jones says. “The name was well-known; the name was already in the article. All I was talking about was the fact that I couldn’t get any medicine—and I still can’t!”
Jones emailed the New Mexico Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program. An unsigned DOH email response also on Jan. 14 states that licensed producers have a right to refuse service “as long as this is not used to illegally discriminate” and can enforce their own confidentiality agreements.
“It’s part of the regulations that when producers develop their own regulations, they have the right to refuse anybody services,” DOH spokesman Chris Minnick tells SFR. “It’s not medical care he’s receiving from the nonprofit producers; it’s only his supply of medical cannabis, and there are other options for this patient to get medical cannabis.”
DOH hasn’t stepped in, Minnick says, because “right now there’s no regulatory role we have in a personal dispute between the licensed nonprofits and the patients.”
Jones contends that medical providers shouldn’t have the right to refuse patients.
“The program was designed to serve the needs of the patients,” he says. “The Health Department seems to think their job is to serve the needs of the growers, and to hell with the patients.”
SFINM did not respond to SFR’s email requests for comment.
Since SFINM dropped him, Jones says he has applied to the program’s four newer providers. Two say they won’t deliver to Las Vegas; he is still waiting to hear from the others.
To observers, Jones’ experience is symptomatic of broader problems.
“It definitely is frustrating for the medical cannabis community inside and outside New Mexico to see a program with such promise still just limping along in a painfully half-assed way,” Bernie Ellis, a Tennessee-based epidemiologist and medical cannabis advocate, says. In December, SFR reported that more than half of New Mexico’s approved patients remained without medicine.
“That this program is being run in a cloak-and-dagger fashion seems to belie the whole notion of acceptable, state-run medical enterprise,” Ellis adds.
Reena Szczepanski, the director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, says broad or retributive confidentiality policies could harm the very patients the Medical Cannabis Program was intended to help. And while she recognizes a licensed producer’s need to protect itself, Szczepanski says it’s important to distinguish between comments that “could jeopardize the program in terms of safety and security” and honest criticism, which should be welcomed, she says, in a new public program.
“All of us who worked so hard to pass this legislation and to get patients access have to be able to have information about whether the program is working and whether patients do have access,” Szczepanski says. “Patients were the heart of the passage of this bill, and we want to hear their voices.”
Here’s Jones’ voice, loud and clear: “They don’t seem to think that I have any right to get my medication, and they won’t help me find a grower that will deliver to me. The whole program is not working.”