Diane Denish, the Democratic candidate for governor of New Mexico, and Susana Martinez, her Republican opponent, have similar views on a surprising number of issues. Both have said they’ll disallow granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Both say they’ll reduce government spending, halt corruption and create more jobs.
But when it comes to medical marijuana, the candidates are diametrically opposed.
As New Mexico’s medical marijuana program nears its third anniversary, the Department of Health, which administers the program, is slowly adding more producers and patients. But politically, it’s still a football—and in some scenarios, its very survival seems up for debate.
In sum, Denish supports the program, and Martinez wants the law that created it repealed. But as anyone in the program knows, it’s never that simple.
On July 1, 2007, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act went into effect, creating a program to dispense medical marijuana to patients with qualifying medical conditions.
According to numbers released June 22 by the DOH, New Mexico’s medical cannabis program has served a total of 2,045 patients (1,905 of whom are currently active). Close to half of the program’s total patient base lives in either Bernalillo or Santa Fe County, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and cancer are the most common qualifying conditions for a medical cannabis license.
But producers and patients alike say the program has many of the same problems that have persisted since its inception: too few producers and too little actual cannabis for too many patients.
As of June 1, the DOH lists five nonprofit producers licensed to grow medical marijuana. Each producer is limited to 95 plants—an amount that David White, the communications director for the Corrales-based medical cannabis provider Southwest Organic Producers, says can serve approximately 100 patients.
With approximately 2,000 patients, then, the program is “a little behind the curve,” White says: There should be 20 producers, not five. The upshot is that Robert Jones, a recovering cancer victim in Las Vegas, NM, didn’t get access to legal medical cannabis until this spring—even though he’s been active in the program since 2007.
The department is “looking at how we can expand the production of medical cannabis,” DOH spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer tells SFR, and rumors are circulating in the medical marijuana community that several more producers may be licensed this year. But for now, there’s a licensing backlog that program participants attribute to both rigorous application requirements and a dearth of program staff. The medical cannabis program, Busemeyer says, is unfunded and “borrow[s] staff and funds from other programs.”
State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, who introduced a version of the Compassionate Use Act in 2006, calls the backlog “a perfect storm: professional reluctance, the recession—and because we ask so much in our application process, it takes time.”
In essence, McSorley sees it as initial growing pains. New Mexico’s candidates for governor, Democrat Diane Denish (left) and Republican Susana Martinez (right), have differing views on the medical marijuana program. Some producers are already taking sides.
“Once we have enough [producer] licenses, this problem goes away,” McSorley says. And with one more full-time employee, he adds, “We could solve this backlog in six months.”
But another employee would require additional funding—in a recession. McSorley, however, suggests the program could support an additional staff member by raising license fees.
Beyond finances, there’s also the question of ideological resistance, which frustrated patients like Jones see in Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil’s reluctance to add more qualifying conditions to the program.
On May 3, Vigil rejected a recommendation by the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to adopt severe behavioral disturbances related to autism, dementia, traumatic brain injury or mental retardation as qualifying conditions for a medical marijuana patient license. In February, Vigil rejected a similar recommendation to include migraine headaches and bipolar disorder.
And in a June 7 story that surveyed medical cannabis programs around the United States, National Public Radio described New Mexico’s medical cannabis program as “the most restrictive” in the country.
White, however, sees the program’s restrictions as an advantage.
“Every condition and every producer that has been added has been carefully screened,” White says. “There’s no second-guessing any of it.”
There is, however, such a thing as second-guessing the program as a whole.
“I would work to repeal the state’s medical marijuana law,” a statement sent to SFR by Adam Deguire, Martinez’ campaign manager, reads. “It is against federal law to distribute marijuana and there are alternative medications that meet the medical needs of patients.”
On the other side is Denish, who “supported the Compassionate Use Act when it passed and is open to having a conversation with the advocates about how it gets implemented,” campaign spokesman Chris Cervini tells SFR.
Neither candidate has made medical marijuana a cornerstone of her campaign. For some voters, though, it will be a key criterion.
Len Goodman, the executive director of Santa Fe medical cannabis producer NewMexiCann Natural Medicine, tells SFR that he hasn’t personally heard a definitive stance from Martinez. As soon as he does, though, Goodman says he’s “going to get political.”
NewMexiCann serves approximately 800 of the program’s active patients, Goodman says, most of them “very motivated to see the program continue.”
Southwest Organic Producers, meanwhile, has already gone there: A colorful brochure on the nonprofit’s website offers a resounding endorsement of Denish, while condemning Martinez for “believ[ing] cannabis is a gateway drug.”
As for doing away with the program entirely, Tamar Todd, a staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, tells SFR the law “would be hard to repeal. The program in New Mexico has had a lot of support for several years; there was a lot of thought that went into its passage. It has a multi-year history of people getting their medicine who are now dependent on the program.”
Advocates like Goodman, White and McSorley want to see increased funding for the medical cannabis program, at least while its limited staff wades through enough producer applications to allow every patient access to medical cannabis.
But electing a governor who is opposed to the program could make any expansion close to impossible, White says.
“They could make it very difficult for the program,” he says. “One of the things the governor could do would be to cut the funding—but guess what? There is no funding.”