Going Public

Medical marijuana expo unites growers, patients and fans

At the state's inaugural Marijuana and Natural Healing Expo in the Albuquerque Convention Center, a disabled Vietnam veteran worked a booth. From July 29-July 31, Bob, who wouldn't share his last name in fear of being associated with a still-taboo subject, offered free advice to help fellow veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder acquire medical marijuana cards. He served two tours in the Vietnam War and moved to New Mexico less than a year ago.

"New Mexico is the only state that recognizes PTSD as a qualifier to get your medical marijuana card," Bob tells SFR."That's why I moved here. That's why veterans are moving here." (California also recognizes PTSD, but doesn't explicitly consider it a qualifying condition.)

Smoking marijuana stops him from acting violent, Bob says. His previous PTSD medicine gave him impotence.

While panels focused on how marijuana can help people like Bob, other booths included head shops, divorce lawyers, massage therapists and even DirecTV salesmen—the results of a late scramble from the organizers, who dropped booth prices, originally set around $900, to $200 last month.

Benjamin Marshall, the CEO of KushMor Productions, which organized the conference, says its purpose was to raise awareness of the medical benefits of cannabis and counter the plant's taboo reputation.

"I have family members with medical conditions that could benefit from this," Marshall says, citing his father, who had PTSD after serving in the Vietnam War.

But Len Goodman, executive director of Santa Fe-based cannabis producer New MexiCann Natural Medicine, says he didn't participate in the expo over concerns that it was celebrating marijuana culture rather than focusing on the state's medical program.

"That's counterproductive," Goodman tells SFR. "It makes it look much more like a move toward legalization, which is not what the program is all about. The medical program is to help people who are sick."

Others disagree. Santa Fe resident Mark Morris, who suffers from arthritis in his back and shoulder, came to inquire about a medical cannabis card. Although his condition isn't recognized as a qualifier, he says raising awareness could help it become one.

"Events like this are going to make the issue more mainstream," Morris tells SFR.

The New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program currently recognizes 16 qualifying medical conditions for just under
4,000 enrolled patients and has 25 licensed suppliers.

Despite chronic shortages over the course of the program's four-year history, last month, New Mexico Health Secretary Catherine Torres announced that the state now has enough product to meet patient demand.

But Albuquerque lawyer John McCall has doubts.

"To say we're in a place where we have enough supply, I think, is premature," McCall tells SFR. "This is going to take a long-term study to determine how many patients per producer is really going to work."

Still, McCall credits the program for avoiding the types of federal crackdowns that have hit other states. In April, federal agents raided seven medical marijuana dispensaries in Spokane, Wash.

"Our Department of Health has done such a wonderful job running the program," McCall says. "I think the federal government respects that."

Emily Kaltenbach, the state director for the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance, says New Mexico's program is a national model.

"[It's] looked at by other states as a gold standard," Kaltenbach says. "We have a well-run, well-regulated program."

But Bruce Perlowin, a former marijuana smuggler turned advocate, doesn't agree.

"There's no dispensaries here," Perlowin tells SFR, referring to the for-profit, storefront medical marijuana shops common in California and Colorado. "That makes it very hard for patients. If you have dispensaries, it makes it easy to get your medicine."

New Mexico, he adds, is small potatoes.

"You don't have a big enough population in New Mexico, compared to California or Colorado, to have a big enough demand," Perlowin says. "They have bigger operations and dispensaries. That's why [federal authorities] are cracking down there."

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