Pot of Gold

Pricey marijuana and other problems plague medicinal users

Of the 16 states that allow medical marijuana, New Mexico is one of only three that haven't experienced federal government crackdowns, according to Washington, DC-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Medical marijuana advocates cite the state Medical Cannabis Program's stringent rules.

"That seems to isolate it from attacks that are going on in medical cannabis programs in other states," Steven Farber, a Santa Fe attorney and longtime member of the NORML legal committee, which advocates for legalizing nonmedical marijuana, tells SFR.

But to some critics, many of the regulations come at a cost to the nearly 7,000 active patients enrolled in the program. While other states allow collectives for patients and caretakers to grow their own marijuana in a community garden, patients in New Mexico are limited to growing four mature plants in their own homes, often far less than the amount they're prescribed.

A lack of variety and soaring costs also pervade the program, says MCP patient Bill More, who's been frustrated with New Mexico's program since moving here from Oregon last December, of the federal government.

Here, he smokes an eighth of an ounce of marijuana—roughly 3.5 grams—every week, whereas in Oregon he smoked about 2 grams a week.

"I'm smoking more here on account of quality," More, whose 15-year history of chronic pain has led to surgeries on his back and knee, tells SFR.

He adds that he pays almost double the price in New Mexico—between $40 and $50 for an eighth. Santa Fe-based producer New MexiCann Natural Medicine sells eighths for $40, which Executive Director Len Goodman says is cheaper than most other producers in the state.

Lack of supply has been an ongoing issue throughout the MCP's five-year history. While the state hasn't approved new producers or increased the amount of marijuana that producers and patients are allowed to grow since late 2010, the MCP has still admitted an average of 200 new patients per month since last November [news, July 11: "Dry Market"].

Despite outcry from advocacy groups, the state Department of Health, which administers the MCP, considers the current supply adequate to meet patient demand. In an email to SFR, DOH spokesman Chris Minnick says that if the department determines it needs more supply, DOH could reconsider the roughly 100 producer applications that were rejected in February. He adds that DOH rejected them because it "didn't want to leave the nonprofit producer applicants in limbo."

Only 23 producers operate in New Mexico, and many of them are located in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Robert Pack, a founding member of the SouthEast New Mexico Medical Cannabis Alliance, says rural patients are often at a disadvantage and, when they're lucky enough to get their medicine, have to pay delivery fees, which can cost between $2 and $5 per gram of marijuana.

"This is a pretty serious issue because our medicine costs more money," Pack tells SFR.

Allen St. Pierre
, NORML's executive director in Washington, DC, says lack of quality and variety are the two biggest concerns his office hears from New Mexico medical marijuana patients.

He stresses that patients' access to different marijuana strains is important. While a strain with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient commonly associated with a mental high, may be the key to helping a patient with a mental ailment like post-traumatic stress disorder, a patient with a spasmodic disease like multiple sclerosis might benefit more from high amounts of cannabidiol (CBD), a component linked with relieving physical ailments like convulsion, nausea and inflammation.

Goodman takes issue with the lack-of-quality argument, but he concedes that New Mexico's variety of medical marijuana is limited. In other states, he says, dispensaries are not cultivators and have access to a wide variety of sources. But in New Mexico, individual producers must stick to their own supply, which is capped at 150 plants.

"Dispensaries in other states can have 10-15 different strains," Goodman tells SFR. "We have three strains in a given week. Plenty of times, patients can't get what they want."

While producers like Goodman advocate to be allowed to grow more plants, Minnick writes that the original plant limit—95 per producer—was set in consideration of federal government penalties, which increase significantly when people grow more than 100 plants illegally. Minnick attributes the MCP's success to its small size.

"When you look at states that tend to have a lot of negative interaction with federal law enforcement, the running theme is that they've failed to place significant caps on the production of medical cannabis in their states," Minnick writes to SFR. "[DOH] does not want the program to get out of control as it has in other states."

One answer to the shortage and variety problems, according to Albuquerque lawyer and medical marijuana advocate Sharone Pomeranz, is allowing patients and their caretakers to grow their own supply in a community garden.

"Patients need to be allowed to grow at another location," Pomeranz says. "Some people's homes just aren't appropriate."

Goodman says he endorses community gardens—as long as they're limited to just patients and not caretakers. Both Oregon and California, which allow patients' caretakers to grow marijuana in community gardens, have been subject to federal raids.

"It opens up a can of worms," Goodman says, adding that not allowing caretakers to grow may be "one of the reasons New Mexico so far is being left alone by the feds."

But St. Pierre has a different explanation. Compared to states like California, where nearly 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries generate a $1 billion industry, New Mexico is a low priority.

"New Mexico's retail access to medical marijuana is as limited as any in the United States," he says.

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