New Mexico's Medical Cannabis Program coordinator has resigned and, due to budget constraints and a hiring freeze, the state Department of Health has not refilled the position yet.

The vacancy is another hurdle for a program that some patients and advocates say has been too slow to achieve its statutory goal.

Melissa Milam, who had served as the program's administrator since the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act went into effect in 2007, left the position in mid-July.

For now, DOH Harm Reduction Program Manager Dominick Zurlo is managing the program with help from an intern recently promoted to handle some administrative duties.

Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil tells SFR it is unclear how long the temporary arrangement will have to suffice.

"Every day the budget projections get worse," Vigil says. "We're going to manage the program; that's not a question. We're currently managing it and we'll continue to manage it, but the structure of that management I'm not sure about."

Initially, on Aug. 21, DOH spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer told SFR the Health Department had requested a hiring freeze exemption in order to fill the position. However, representatives from the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration and the State Personnel Office, both of which process and approve hiring exemptions, tell SFR the agencies have received no such request.

When presented with that response, Busemeyer then said the exemption paperwork had first been filed with the DOH's human resources office and would be filed with the DFA on Aug. 24.

Milan cites the recent birth of her daughter as one reason for leaving her position. Another is she hopes to form a nonprofit to produce and dispense medical cannabis.

Last year, the Department of Health approved rules that allow patients suffering from certain conditions to possess and grow marijuana. The rules also allow for licensure of nonprofit organizations to grow and distribute marijuana to patients.

So far, 540 patients have received licenses, but only one nonprofit—Santa Fe Institute for Natural Medicine—has been approved. As a result, the majority of patients can only acquire cannabis through illicit means.

This is part of Milan's motivation to form a nonprofit.

"The program has been slammed so hard, but I really am proud of it," Milam tells SFR. "I want to make it better and that's why I'm interested in taking care of patients on the nonprofit side. I feel like I've done all I can do for them on the government side."

While proud of the structure of the program, Milam says she is disappointed in the practices exhibited by the single licensed producer.

For one thing, Milam says, SFINM's prices are comparable to what would be paid on the street. More disturbing, she says, are reports that SFINM requires patients to meet delivery drivers in parking lots in order to obtain their medication.

"Asking people to meet you in a parking lot, I mean, how is that any different from a drug deal?" Milam says.

The Department of Health confirms that this practice is occurring.

"We are aware of how they are conducting their distribution system," Busemeyer says. "It is up to the nonprofit to develop a distribution system that works for the nonprofits and the patients."

SFINM spokeswoman Margaret Schulze declined to reveal the prices and delivery policies employed by the nonprofit.

"The organization is here to serve patients with illness," Schulze writes via email. "To make any connection between our services and services provided to the subculture of recreational drug users demonstrates a lack of respect for the patients of the program."

However, Las Vegas, NM-based cancer patient and medical cannabis license-holder Robert Jones tells SFR he agrees with Milam's evaluation of SFINM.

"They said it's going to cost $400 an ounce and they won't be delivering to Las Vegas, so you'd have to meet them somewhere else," Jones says. "I'm not capable of driving to Santa Fe and I can't afford $400."

Jones is licensed to grow for himself, but says online companies offering quality seeds have ripped him off twice. Instead, he had to obtain his marijuana plants illicitly from a "compassionate person in Taos."

"[The Medical Cannabis Program] needs to move a lot faster than it's moving," Jones says. "They normally don't respond very well to patients. Usually you get the answering machine, and it tells you they get 150 calls a day and you don't get a call back."

Vigil says over the next few weeks the department will evaluate SFINM's production and delivery capacity in order to decide which producer to approve next. What region the next producer will serve will be key, he says.

"We're just too early in the game to know what things we feel are really excellent components that we ought to promulgate and what things have not worked so well that we either have to fix or ask the next producer to do differently," Vigil says.

More than 20 nonprofits have applied for licenses. Vigil says he won't speculate when the next will be approved or ultimately how many will be needed to meet the state's demand.

In the meantime, Jones wants to form a support group and website for medical marijuana patients to share information on everything from growing techniques to how to safely purchase marijuana on the black market.

When employed at the department, Milam had encouraged such informal meetings among medical cannabis patients. In April, Busemeyer told SFR Milam was the subject of an internal investigation as a result. Busemeyer says the investigation found no wrongdoing on Milam's part, but Milam suggests the investigation was inappropriate to begin with.

"I was shocked when I read in the paper that there was an investigation," Milam says. "I had attorneys, paid for by the state, present at those hearings. I did not understand what went on that I was suddenly under investigation."

Now Milam says she plans to travel to Israel to study cannabis farming practices and also is looking into developing a breathalyzer-style device police can use to instantly test drivers for marijuana intoxication. Primarily, she says, she would like to form a nonprofit growhouse.

"Ideally, I am looking for a group of really professional people to put together a nonprofit to apply for a production license because I feel that very few people understand how to take care of the patients in New Mexico the way I do," she says.

Total Patients enrolled since inception:   590
Current Active Patients:                          540
Deceased Patients:                                   7
Inactive Patients (have not recertified):   43
Non-Profit Producer Applications Rec’d:           21 (includes licensed producer)
Non-Profit Producers Licensed:                         1
Patients Licensed for Personal Production:        116
Qualifying Conditions (includes all patients enrolled since inception of the program):       
Cancer and Glaucoma:
Severe Chronic Pain:
Chron’s Disease:
Epilepsy and HIV/AIDS:
Epilepsy and Spinal Cord:
Hepatitis C (with tx):
Hospice Care:  
Inclusion Body Myoctis (Severe Chronic Pain):
Intractable Nausea:
Multiple Sclerosis:
MS and Spinal Cord:
Painful Peripheral Neuropathy:
Severe Anorexia/cachexia:
Spinal Cord Damage with Intractable Spasticity: