Dry Market

Amid a lack of supply, medical marijuana patients resort to risky alternatives

Krista Robbins begins her mornings in her backyard with her coffee tucked in one hand and her medicine in the other. Her body shakes—the sign of an oncoming anxiety attack—but she says three or four puffs of medical marijuana are enough to curb her symptoms for the next four to five hours.

"It balances me out," Robbins, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, tells SFR.

The last time SFR checked in with Robbins, she was worried about the lengthy waiting periods other patients in the state's Medical Cannabis Program were experiencing while renewing their licenses, which expire every year [news, Nov. 2, 2011: "Cani-Bust"]. If that happened to Robbins, she would be transported to darker days when doctors prescribed her powerful drugs like the antipsychotic Quetiapine to keep her from physically hurting herself, among other symptoms.

But recently, Robbins had to go without her medicine for a different reason: There wasn't enough to go around. That's also true for patients beyond Farmington, where Robbins lives.

Last November, the Medical Cannabis Program had roughly 5,500 active patients. Today, the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients' Alliance estimates that number has grown to 6,900 active patients (DOH didn't respond to SFR before press time, despite several phone calls and emails).

At the same time, the New Mexico Department of Health, which manages the program, hasn't licensed new producers or increased the number of plants they're allowed to grow since December 2010. As a result, many medical cannabis patients have been going days, if not weeks, without their medicine.

"When I have to turn away three or four patients, that's unacceptable," Willie Ford, who works with Albuquerque-based producer R Greenleaf Organics, Inc., tells SFR.

A recent survey of 21 of the state's 23 licensed producers conducted by Len Goodman, executive director of Santa Fe-based producer New MexiCann Natural Medicine, found the Medical Cannabis Program currently operating at a 68 percent shortage in grams of medical marijuana available to patients.

In late June, Goodman also presented DOH with a patients' petition requesting an increase in the number of plants producer are allowed to grow.

"The majority of producers are running out of medicine on a Tuesday," TJ Scott, a board member with the Patients' Alliance, tells SFR. "It used to be on a Saturday."

At New MexiCann, the supply has been drying up even faster. At 7:30 pm on Sunday, July 8, New MexiCann sent an email update telling its patients that a new harvest was ready. By the next day, all of New MexiCann's supply was already ordered.

"We were sold out before noon," Jaylene Kost, an office manager, tells SFR. "That's pretty typical."

At the same time, advocates praise the program for turning around patient applications and renewals faster than before. Last summer, some patients complained about waiting as long as three months for license renewals. Now, that wait is down to 2-5 weeks, says Jennifer Kane, another Patients' Alliance board member. (State law requires the waiting period be no longer than 30 days.)

Still, the shortage seemed resolved last summer when the added supply from eight newly approved producers helped meet patient demand for perhaps the first time in the program's five-plus-year history. But Kane says she started hearing about lack of supply becoming a problem again as far back as January.

"[The patients are] in a rat race going from place to place to place," Kane tells SFR.

Recently, when Robbins' Farmington-based producer couldn't provide her marijuana, she tried to get her medicine from four other producers around the state, all to no avail. Before enrolling in the program in April 2011, Robbins' doctors would prescribe her several narcotics. The combination kept her lying on the couch all day in a foggy state.

Last month, without a way to get cannabis, her doctor put her back on six narcotics, including Lamictal, Xanax and Ambien.

"I turned into a zombie again," Robbins says. "It wasn't nearly as bad, but it was a look back at what I used to have to go through."

Despite dreading going back on prescription drugs, Robbins contends that it beats the alternative of buying illegally off the street.

Not all patients agree. Leonard French, a Malaga resident who's been paralyzed from the waist down ever since a motorcycle accident in 1987, says the closest cannabis producer is five hours away. As a licensed patient, he's allowed to grow four mature plants, but he says that isn't enough to control his leg spasms and back pain.

"I've always either had to grow my own or buy it off the street or both," he tells SFR.

More recently, French says he's been buying from dealers in the black market every three or four days.

"It's risky," French tells SFR. "I get ripped off a lot."

Still, illegal cannabis is an improvement over being prescribed Valium, which French says used to keep him asleep all day. Cannabis, on the other hand, can make French's spasms instantly stop. He adds that he limits his intake to one or two puffs; "that way, I'm not all stoned."

Nearby, Scott O'Rourke has spent almost three years trying to start Medical Going Green in the southeastern part of the state so patients like French don't have to resort to the streets. In late February, DOH denied his and 105 other producer applications. O'Rourke says DOH never provided a reason for his application's rejection. He says the fact that patients in his area are buying their medicine illegally is "sad and dangerous."

On July 5, O'Rourke filed a lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez and DOH Cabinet Secretary Catherine Torres asking for a producer's license and damages. Reber Boult, O'Rourke's attorney, contends that the state's refusal to allow new producers is a violation of the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, which requires the program to provide patients with an "adequate supply" of medical cannabis, defined as enough for an uninterrupted period of three months.

"Every day that passes is a day the product is not being made available," Boult tells SFR.

For Robbins, matters improved last week, when her producer finally had a new supply of medical marijuana. On July 6, as she felt the symptoms of an anxiety attack coming, Robbins went to her designated spot in the backyard and smoked four puffs of cannabis. Within five minutes, she says, her body stopped shaking. Like French, Robbins says her dose isn't enough to get her high.

"You do have to be careful," she says. "There is a responsibility that comes with it." 

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